Minnesotans trying to lift the state’s ban on Sunday liquor retailing were upbeat Tuesday after a House committee easily voted to repeal it, the first sign that a bevy of new legislators are sympathetic to allowing Sunday sales.
“You’re starting to get more people wondering aloud to their legislators, ‘Why not?’ ” said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, chief author of the bill.
Despite Tuesday’s success, advocates face obstacles from entrenched interest groups that have been effective at keeping it in place up until now. Many liquor retailers and bars favor the current regulation because they say it ensures a fair marketplace and sound public health.
Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, was resigned to the legislation passing its first hurdle but not willing to give up. “Our organization will continue to fight for the little guy, for the small family-owned business that owns and operates bars and liquor stores throughout Minnesota,” he said in a statement.
The group argues its members would have to open their businesses on Sundays to compete with larger competitors but are unlikely to see a proportional increase in sales. In other words, more overhead with little to show for it.
Opponents have history on their side — the ban has been in place since statehood in 1858.
Advocates for Sunday sales — including an array of other powerful interest groups — get a little closer every year, buoyed by public opinion polls that have repeatedly shown the public overwhelmingly favors repeal.
Minnesotans can buy alcohol at taverns and restaurants, or fill a growler at a brewery on Sundays. But if they want to buy from a liquor store, they have to travel to surrounding states, each of which allows the sale of booze on the traditional Christian sabbath.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he hopes the House will vote to repeal the ban by the end of the month. Twice since Daudt became speaker, efforts to overturn the law failed in the House. But November’s election has brought significant turnover in the legislative ranks.
Loon offered an amendment to her own bill to mollify some opposition, limiting Sunday hours to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and prohibiting alcohol deliveries on Sunday. She said the measure gives Minnesotans the choices they have come to expect: “This is a change that consumers have been seeking and retailers have been seeking for a number of years,” she said.
Gary Fry, a minister who said he was speaking for himself and not for his church, testified against the bill with a jeremiad against the dangers of alcohol.
“Families are ruined because of alcohol,” Fry said. “If this much destruction is being caused in six days, just think what seven days are going to do.”
The House Commerce Committee approved the bill 15-4, with two Republicans and two DFLers voting to preserve it. The full House is expected to vote on it soon.
The Senate offers Sunday sale opponents more cause for hope. Senate Republicans, newly in the majority but with a slim, one vote advantage, are focused on passing a two-year state budget and tending to other agenda items like health care reform and tax cuts. For Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who is a conservative Christian, changing the Sunday liquor law is not a top priority.
At a Tuesday news conference, Gov. Mark Dayton gave a tepid endorsement of the repeal of the ban on Sunday sales. Dayton said he would allow it to become law if it arrives on his desk without any other objectionable measures attached to it.