Sunday liquor sale supporters in the Minnesota Legislature are taking no chances this year.
The bipartisan, bicameral team of Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, and Rep. Jennifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, introduced seven different bills Thursday aimed at lifting or relaxing the state's longstanding ban on Sunday liquor sales.
"We are offering the Legislature a full spectrum of choices," Reinert, who pledged to have at least one of the bills out of Senate Commerce before the committee deadline, two weeks from now. "It is unreasonable to not make some progress on this in 2014, the 'unsession.' What better unsession issue than the repeal of a Prohibition-era ban that just does not fit in 21st Century Minnesota?"
The bills range from full repeal to proposals that would allow individual communities to decide for themselves whether they want to permit Sunday sales. There's also a proposal to place Sunday sales on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, and bills -- Reinert called them "baby steps" -- that would allow growler sales and allow tap rooms to open on Sunday.
Minnesota is one of only 12 states that does not allow liquor sales to open on Sunday. Every year, the issue comes up in the Legislature, and every year it either stalls in committee or gets resoundingly rejected by a floor vote.
The state's liquor lobby, and many small mom and pop liquor stores, have successfully argued that the ban could be bad for business. Instead of bringing in more sales, opponents say, it will simply spread six days of sales across seven.
Reinert countered that argument with a tongue-in-cheek bill that would ban Saturday liquor sales, as well as Sunday. Then, he said, liquor stores could concentrate six days' worth of business in just five.
"Now you have the same amount of expenses with just five days of expenses. Given the argument, I'm expecting a loud hurrah to come out of the (Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association), but somehow I don't think that's going to happen," said Reinert, noting that he has a list of 60 liquor stores around the state that support repeal.
"We know there's more momentum on this than we've ever seen at the Capitol," Reinert said.
"I have had members who have indicated to me that they are rethinking their position on the Sunday ban," Loon said. "And I think it's because of the range of options we've provided for members to consider."
The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association issued a statement blasting the repeal effort, warning that the only way stores will do more business is if Minnesotans do more drinking.
“When government changes the ‘rules’ that a private business is operating under it will have an effect on many businesses,” the statement said. “Some may do better, but we believe many businesses will see no benefit from the change and will experience increased costs in doing business. Unless alcohol consumption increases, our mom and pop stores will see increased costs without increased revenues.”
The statement continued: “The Legislature has overwhelmingly listened to the concerns of small business in the past and defeated attempts to change the rules. We hope they will continue to support the local business in their districts.
The Distilled Spirits Council, by contrast, praised the repeal plans. Seventeen other states have legalized Sunday sales since 2002.
“Nationally, states are repealing outdated Prohibition-era alcohol laws to increase consumer convenience and generate new revenue without raising taxes,” DISCUS Vice President Dale Szyndrowski said in a statement. “We urge Minnesota lawmakers to consider passing Sunday sales for consumers, small business owners and the treasury.”
For Loon, the issue boils down to a question of economic freedom.
"Some liquor store owners may not want to be open on Sunday, and I'm not here to tell you they have to be, or that I want them to be," she said. "What I'm saying is that there are liquor store owners who would like to be open on Sunday and there are consumers who would very much like to patronize liquor stores on Sunday, if that's when it works out for them to do their shopping. This is a change that is needed."
Efforts to raise Minnesota's minimum wage have generated a lot of heat at the Capitol but who earns the minimum?
Here's a chart of who earns minimum wage or less in Minnesota, by industry:
Here's a chart of who earns minimum wage or less in Minnesota, by age:
Note: The Minnesota minimum wage is $6.15 an hour for large businesses. Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has been set at $7.25 an hour. That means that most Minnesota employers have to pay the federal minimum to their workers.
After some blunt words and two days of tense meetings, legislative negotiators on minimum wage have reached an impasse for now.
Lawmakers are tied up with whether or not to add an inflationary bump to their move to phase in the proposed increase in the wage floor to $9.50 an hour by 2016.
Against a backdrop of national Democrats, including President Obama, Democratic campaign arms and several members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, pushing for a federal minimum wage hike, DFLers controlling the Minnesota House and Senate have reached what Rep. Ryan Winkler called a "stalemate."
"It doesn't look like we're making a lot of progress," Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, told his fellow lawmakers as they attempted to negotiate a minimum wage compromise on Wednesday.
Since Monday, when Senate officials said for the first time they would support a minimum wage of $9.50 an hour, House and Senate officials have been unable to agree whether future minimum wage increases should be automatic.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said on Tuesday that if the House insisted on including an inflationary bump, "there won't be a bill."
House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, replied, "if the Senate wants to kill the bill, they should just tell Minnesotans directly."
While tempers appeared to have cooled publicly by Wednesday, legislators were still stymied over the question of inflation in minimum wage increases come 2017.
"The inflator is a non-starter in the Senate. I don't have the votes," Sen. Chris Eaton, a Brooklyn Center Democrat who is the Senate's chief negotiator, said on Wednesday.
The negotiators, who met every day this week, will not meet publicly again until Monday. Winkler suggested that in the interim it may be helpful for lawmakers to talk about creative approaches to dealing with the inflation question.
At least one DFL House member tried social media to move things forward:
If you live in Minnesota, and you care about a respectable minimum wage, you need to contact your state senator. Now. #RaiseTheWage— John Lesch (@johnlesch) March 5, 2014
Photo: A minimum wage rally at the state Capitol greeted lawmakers as they returned to session last week // Source: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune
Minnesotans should be able to use a website to register to vote, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers voted on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the House Elections committee on a bipartisan vote approved the online practice that has been available — with considerable controversy — since last year.
“I think its an issue that is kind of a no brainer for the state of Minnesota,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office began accepting online registrations last year without specific legislative instruction to do so. Democrats, Republicans and the nonpartisan Legislative Auditor said last year that the matter likely should have been approved by the Legislature first. Ritchie claims existing law gave him the authority to start registering voters online.
Despite a still unsettled lawsuit to stop the web-based registrations, more than 3,300 Minnesotans have registered to vote online. A judge is expected to decide the case by April.
By then, the Minnesota Legislature may have already put a practical end to the question of Ritchie's authority to create the online system. The legislative action would add the force of law to online voter registration.
A Senate panel is expected to take up a measure to approve online voter registration next week. The House may deal with the issue more expediently.
“To the extent that we can move it quickly, we’re better off,” Thissen said. With Tuesday's vote in committee, the House bill is ready for a full floor vote.
More than two dozen states offer voters online registration, although some states allow more limited web-based registration than others, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
The potential restriction of electronic cigarette use in Minnesota cleared a Senate panel Monday over opposition from users who say the devices are a safe alternative to tobacco.
Debate over the bill before the Senate Health and Human Services panel featured a reprise of testimony from last week’s hearing before a house panel, and additional witnesses who vigorously opposed regulating the devices without evidence of their risks.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato and Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, would restrict the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and classify their use, known among enthusiasts as “vaping,” as prohibited under the state’s Freedom to Breathe Act, which prohibits tobacco use indoors and in public spaces.
Advocates for the ban, including the American Lung Association and the head of Minnesota’s Department of Health, say the devices, with candy-like flavors, are marketed toward getting another generation of kids hooked on nicotine, and that there’se no proof that the vapor emitted from the devices are safe.
Pat McKone, Director of the American Lung Assocation in Minnesota, said the liquids sold for inhalation by the devices are completely unregulated, and can be concocted in strip malls, basements, even the trunks of cars.
University of Minnesota Medical School professor Dr. Ann Joseph said the lack of regulation is the reason they should be closely watched.
But e-cigarette advocates say the devices are not a gateway to tobacco, rather than a gateway from them. Gregory Conley, a Heartland Institute research fellow and e-cigarette advocate who used the devices to quit smoking, argued that “Clean Indoor Air” is in reference to a bill that bans smoking, but called it merely a “pithy nickname.” Otherwise, he said, businesses like nail salons and auto mechanics would also be regulated. Lumping the vapors from e-cigarettes with those of combustible tobacco, he said, is ludicrous. If an e-cigarette user waits for our five seconds to exhale, nothing comes out.
“Someone could be using an e-cigarette in the back of this room and you wouldn’t know.” he said.
The bill heads next to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.