The state Senate voted Monday to let Minnesota liquor stores open on Sundays, giving opponents of a Sunday sales ban the victory they need to finally undo a 159-year-old, increasingly unpopular state law.
"We've been hearing loud and clear from our constituents that it's time to get this done," said Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, chief author of the measure, which passed 38-28. "Today we have an opportunity to show Minnesota we're with the people."
Differences between the Senate measure and a companion bill the House passed last week mean a few more steps in the legislative process before supporters can celebrate with the cocktail of their choice. But the Senate was seen as the steepest climb for the ban's opponents, and Gov. Mark Dayton's promise to let the repeal become law means liquor stores in the state are likely to be able to start featuring Sunday hours come July.
The Sunday ban has been in place since Minnesota's statehood and was kept in place even after Prohibition ended in 1933. Along with the state law forbidding automobile sales on Sunday, the liquor ban stands as one of Minnesota's last remaining "blue laws" that prohibited certain activities on Sunday but have mostly fallen to changing cultural mores and consumer tastes.
In more recent years, the ban stayed in place thanks to strong support from an array of special interests. But opponents of the Sunday ban, emboldened by growing public support, called it a relic of an earlier time, out of step with modern, seven-day-a-week lifestyles. Minnesota is one of only 12 states that now prevent liquor stores from opening on Sunday; every state bordering Minnesota already allows it.
The ban's supporters called its likely repeal a blow to small businesses and small-town life.
"Monday's vote may seem like the popular decision to some, but its impact on small, family-owned liquor stores will be negative," Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said in a statement. "As the Legislature considers other proposals, we ask legislators to keep a level playing field so smaller stores can fairly compete against big box retailers."
The House and Senate versions have minor differences. The Senate's measure would allow stores to open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., while the House bill would let them open an hour earlier. Differences will be ironed out by a conference committee comprising members from both chambers, unless the House decides to sign off on the Senate version and send it on to Dayton.
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, the chief author of the House bill, said she and allies would decide soon which way to go.
The votes in the Legislature this past week mark a reversal from previous years, when multiple attempts to end the Sunday ban failed by big margins.
A few factors changed the legislative dynamic and finally overwhelmed effective and long-standing opposition from established sectors of the liquor industry.
Public opinion polls showed big majorities of the public wanted the change. A bevy of new legislators took office, many as baffled by the Sunday law as the voters who elected them. Activists urged on by craft brewers and distillers, and others with a stake in ending the ban, exerted grass roots pressure. And major retail chains provided lobbying muscle.
Total Wine & More — a big-box liquor store fighting to end the Sunday ban — spent $170,000 lobbying the Legislature in 2014 and 2015, the most recently available figures from the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
The state Licensed Beverage Association, which represents taverns and liquor stores and which fought to keep the ban in place, spent $60,000 in 2015 and $105,000 in 2013.
The Senate vote showed a geographic rather than partisan divide. Nineteen Republicans and 19 DFLers voted down the ban. Senators from the Twin Cities were more likely to support repeal, while senators from more rural districts — also of both parties — were more likely to oppose it.
The debate featured passionate arguments on both sides as it stretched to nearly 90 minutes.
"What is this going to do to my little hometown?" asked Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
He recalled the cafe and barbershop and hardware stores of his youth by name in defense of state policies that protect small businesses.
"They were all there when I was a kid," Bakk said. "In their place on our little Main Street are a whole lot of empty lots."
Advocates for scrapping the Sunday ban said it's time to make Minnesota's law consistent with the lives of Minnesotans, for whom Sunday is now as likely to be spent running errands as in church.
"It is time," said Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. "We'd rather be talking about issues of greater significance. Let us pass this and move to those important issues."