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Minnesotans thirsting for access to liquor stores on Sunday aren't likely to see the state's long-standing ban lifted this year, but they might see looser restrictions on Sunday sales at breweries and taprooms.
Sen. Roger Reinert, the Duluth DFLer pushing to end the Sunday prohibition, said Wednesday that he lacks enough votes to get a full repeal of the ban out of a key Senate committee. The proposal also lacks sufficient support to pass the House.
Instead, Reinert is offering two bills he called "baby steps" — allowing breweries to sell 64-ounce glass growlers of beer on Sunday and letting brewery taprooms offer Sunday hours even if they don't serve food.
"I do want full repeal. But I'm also practical and realistic, and this is what we could do," Reinert said. Lifting Sunday restrictions on craft brewers would boost an industry that's exploding across the state, Reinert said, with dozens of small breweries popping up throughout the Twin Cities and cities and towns statewide.
Efforts to scrap the Sunday ban entirely have been losers at the Capitol for many years, but advocates have been more organized and active at the Capitol in recent months. Although they call the repeal a common-sense change, owners of many small liquor stores like the current law because it lets them close one day a week without losing business to larger competitors.
Liquor industry's stance
Their lobby group, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, wields heavy clout with legislators and has been the chief Capitol guardian of the Sunday ban. The group's lobbyist said Wednesday it would not try to prevent Sunday growler sales or taproom hours, which makes passage more likely.
"The conversation around Sunday sales has always been related to liquor store operations," Beverage Association lobbyist Joe Bagnoli said. He said letting breweries sell growlers on Sunday is unlikely to affect liquor stores, which don't sell them.
Bagnoli said some Sunday ban supporters fear that lifting brewery restrictions could be "a nose under the camel's tent" that lays the groundwork for full repeal in the next few years.
"But for us to oppose it for a tactical and not a policy reason is not something we felt we could do," he said.
The association and a linked group, the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, together spent about $169,000 on lobbying in 2012 and 2013. But more than money, the group flexes power with a wide network of store owners who have the ears of legislators.
"I'll never vote against the Sunday ban as long as my local store owners want it, and right now they all say they do," said Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove. That's despite his district's proximity to Wisconsin, where opponents of the ban note that Minnesotans are apt to spend their money if they need to make a purchase on Sunday.
The Senate Commerce Committee approved both the growler and taproom bills for likely inclusion in a broader liquor policy bill. Later Wednesday, the House Commerce Committee approved its own liquor policy bill that includes the Sunday growler sales provision. Backers pointed out that Minnesota wineries are already allowed to sell bottles to go on Sundays.
Gov. Mark Dayton boosted the ban's opponents in December when he said he'd sign a repeal. But Rep. Joe Atkins, the House Commerce Committee chairman, said he has yet to see enough support in the House for a full repeal.
'Do I think it's enough? No.'
Andrew Schmitt is a St. Paul resident who initiated the grass-roots lobby group Minnesota Beer Activists to fight the Sunday ban. He called lifting the brewery restrictions the right move.
"But do I think it's enough? No," Schmitt said. "What about consumers who don't live near a brewery?"
For the brewery owners, lifting the ban is likely to be good for business. "It's a huge opportunity for us," said Ben Flattum, sales and marketing manager at Excelsior Brewing Company. He said the Lake Minnetonka area often has thousands of visitors on Sundays in the spring, summer and fall. Many breweries have added workers and square footage in recent years; Fulton Brewery, near Target Field, is working on a 50,000-square-foot expansion.
"Imagine the kind of business they'll get on a Sunday after a Twins game," said Dan Larson, lobbyist for the Minnesota Brewers Association. "The first question everyone has when they open their taproom is, how do we get bigger? Everyone is expanding."
Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.