A yearslong battle at the Capitol to allow Minnesota liquor stores to open on Sundays is finally won, but the political forces unleashed are likely to turn attention next to other state liquor laws that many consider just as antiquated.
It’s too early to say if that means wine for sale in food markets, or regular beer as opposed to just the 3.2 version in conveniences stores. But interest groups that showed they’re willing to spend big to change liquor laws, and the energy around the issue from grass roots activists, are certain to find new outlets — if not this year then in the near future.
The bill scrapping the Sunday ban is now on the desk of Gov. Mark Dayton, who’s expected to either sign it or let it become law. Stores will be able to open legally on Sundays starting July 2.
The success of the repeal effort illustrated how some of the state’s most well-funded and effective interest groups — either protecting turf or trying to encroach on it — operate at the Capitol. On one side were liquor stores and bars, beer wholesalers and the Teamsters union aligned to fight Sunday sales.
Another group — primarily big-box liquor retailer Total Wine & More, along with a national distillers group — spent years grinding down opposition, helping elect favored candidates and stoking public opinion.
The various interest groups spent more than $500,000 lobbying the Legislature on Sunday sales and other, mostly alcohol-related issues in 2015, the most recent year of available data.
Contrary to public perception, money doesn’t actually have to exchange hands. Much of the cash was spent to hire powerful lobbyists, armed with key relationships at the Capitol and helped along by financial support for legislative campaigns.
For years, Sunday sales opponents successfully mobilized liquor store owners while leveraging relationships with lawmakers. But in the end, they met their match: The beer-swilling public, many engaged by the growing popularity of craft beers and spirits, who emerged as unpaid volunteers with no cachet at the Capitol other than their own voices.
“Oh, I know they were calling,” Andrew Schmitt of St. Paul, the volunteer leader of Minnesota Beer Activists, said of grass roots repeal boosters. “We heard back from legislators that people are calling, and they’re upset,” Schmitt, said during a phone interview on his way to — what else? — sample new beers.
The Beer Activists even had an operation for whipping up votes, armed with information from a questionnaire they sent to candidates before the 2016 election.
The real work began before the legislative session. A series of heavy-turnover elections brought in new lawmakers from both parties more receptive to simple arguments for Sunday convenience, and without long-standing relationships with veteran lobbyists for the opposition.
“It’s fair to say after the 2016 election, it was clear where the issue was headed,” said Leslie Rosedahl, a spokeswoman for the SMART campaign — Supporting Minnesota’s Alcohol Regulations and Traditions — comprising the coalition of Sunday sale opponents.
But for longtime players in the alcohol industry, the Sunday question was just a battle in the larger war to either dismantle or protect the regulatory regime around alcohol sales, in place since the end of Prohibition.
It’s called the three-tier system. In general, consumers can’t buy a case of Budweiser from Anheuser-Busch or a wholesaler. Instead, Anheuser-Busch must sell it to a distributor. Which sells it to a liquor store. Which sells it to the public.
Each state developed its own laws after Prohibition, and Minnesota has its own quirks: No alcohol in grocery stores, which is why grocers’ liquor stores have separate entrances and legally mandated hours. And, an owner can have no more than one retail liquor license per city.
Free market advocates say the regulations create a rigged market, with established players carving up profits and excluding new competitors.
There’s a good reason for the tight regulatory environment, Rosedahl said: “It’s not bread. It’s more along the lines of prescription drugs or firearms, and we believe that there should be common-sense precautions.”
The SMART campaign holds that Minnesota’s liquor laws ensure reasonable prices and selection while properly mitigating problems associated with alcohol that plague many other states. It’s likely that they will have to fend off more challenges to current law in coming years.
“Consumer convenience is always our number one priority,” said Eric Reller, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington. He said 28 states now allow some form of distilled spirits in grocery stores. “One-stop shopping is certainly something we advocate,” he said.
The challenge will be firing up liquor buyers who don’t have to drive to Wisconsin on Sundays for beer before a Vikings game.
“It was an easy issue to educate people on,” Schmitt said, referring to Sunday sales. He said will return to more idiosyncratic policies affecting breweries and beer lovers, like making it easier for breweries to sever ties with distributors when they are dissatisfied.
“You have to have a working knowledge about complicated issues,” Schmitt said.
Now in the thick of Minnesota alcohol laws, Schmitt the outsider will have to try his hand on the inside.