Minnesota House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt had a ready answer when asked at a Dec. 11 legislative preview forum what issue might be the 2015 “sleeper” — a long-dormant bill that unexpectedly stirs to life and sprints to enactment. “I’d say Sunday liquor sales,” Daudt said.
For the sake of every Minnesota host of a holiday party today who is contemplating a dash across a state line to supplement a supply of adult beverages — and for the sake of the Minnesota retailers who will lose potential sales today to stores in neighboring states — we hope Daudt is right. We share his sense that, despite decades of legislative futility, 2015 could be the year that Minnesota’s 80-year-old ban on Sunday liquor sales is finally lifted.
We make that claim for several reasons. One is Daudt himself. The Republican from Isanti County who will serve as the House’s top legislative traffic cop is disposed toward making Sunday sales legal. So is DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who has said he will sign such a bill if it reaches his desk. (Dayton hails from a retailing family that opened its stores on Sundays decades ago.)
The Republican takeover of the state House makes that chamber’s lead sponsor of a Sunday sales change, Rep. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, a senior member with considerable clout. The new GOP majority is less inclined than was the 2014 DFL majority to be swayed by opposition to Sunday sales that arose last session from an unexpected source — the Teamsters union, which claimed that allowing Sunday beer growler sales at taprooms could reopen its contracts with other alcohol suppliers.
While House Republicans are divided over Sunday sales, the idea appeals to two factions in the GOP coalition — libertarians who want fewer limits on personal freedom and free-market advocates who want fewer government restrictions on commerce.
The change in the House leaves the DFL-controlled Senate as the more prominent impediment to a change in the Sunday sales law. As such, senators will come under pressure to bend to public demand. That demand is strong. In May 2013, Public Policy Polling found 62 percent of Minnesotans favoring repeal of the Sunday ban. That’s the kind of poll result that gets noticed in a legislative body whose members must stand for re-election in 2016.
The poll points to the larger reason that Minnesota’s Sunday liquor sales ban is ripe for repeal: Minnesota mind-sets about both Sundays and alcohol have changed dramatically. The Sunday sales ban was enacted by the 1935 Legislature, the first to meet after Prohibition was repealed in December 1933. It was a concession to the state’s alcohol-abhorring, Sabbath-keeping Protestants, some of whom had been leaders in bringing Prohibition to the nation in 1919.
Today, alcohol use in moderation is more widely accepted. And Sunday is now a day of work as well as Christian worship. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about a third of Americans work on an average weekend day. And it’s a day for shopping — the second-biggest shopping day of the week for the nation’s 35-to-54-year-olds, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That may be more true in Minnesota, whose share of women in the workforce has long been among the highest in the nation.
Sunday sales are now the norm in 38 states, including all of the states adjoining Minnesota. None registered an increase in alcohol-related traffic stops after the change, Loon said.
The strongest resistance to Sunday sales in recent years has come from liquor retailers themselves, some of whom believe opening on Sundays would raise their costs without increasing their sales. For them, we offer a suggestion: Drive this afternoon to Fargo, N.D., Sioux Falls, S.D., or Hudson or Superior, Wis., and pull into the parking lot of the first liquor store you see. Look at all the Minnesota license plates. Those customers could have been yours. The Distilled Spirits Council says Minnesota Sunday buyers will spend $15 million this year in other states — an estimate state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, deems very conservative.
Some of the retailers who claim that they’ll suffer if the Sunday sales ban is lifted may be right. But it isn’t government’s role to protect businesses from competition. Government’s interest in regulating alcohol sales lies in the realm of public safety. We see little threat to public safety in allowing the sale of a legal — albeit intoxicating — product on a day when consumers want to buy it. The Sunday sales ban is an anachronism that belongs in Minnesota’s history books, not its statute books.