It is more reliable than the arrival of a new winter ale or the seasonal switch from gin to bourbon: The annual attempt to bury an old blue law and allow Minnesota liquor stores to sell booze on Sundays.
It has been a quixotic pursuit in past years as legislators on both sides of the aisle eloquently tout free markets and competition with neighboring states, then soundly and routinely vote down an idea overwhelmingly favored by consumers.
This year Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, is leading the fight to allow a legal product to be sold on the Sabbath. She thinks that her plan to allow local municipalities to control liquor sales might be the compromise needed to gain traction on the issue.
I hope she’s right, but I won’t be betting any money on it.
That’s because those opposed to it, often known as “the powerful liquor lobby” and the Teamsters union, spend lots of time and money on the issue. Meanwhile those who favor Sunday sales — consumers — don’t have enough incentive to waste their resources fighting for it.
A relatively new player is trying to change that. The recent surge in craft breweries, many of which don’t sell food and thus can’t be open on Sundays, has created a new advocate for Sunday sales.
“There’s a multitude of reasons we’re for it,” said Andrew Schmitt, director of Minnesota Beer Activists. “First of all it’s a right afforded to consumers in almost every state.”
(Minnesota is one of 12 states that ban Sunday sales).
“Just look across to [the] border and see it hasn’t been a problem,” said Schmitt. “It’s common sense, really.”
The advent of small breweries, and their immense popularity, could give advocates of Sunday sales increasing clout. Beer activists have even set up a Web page (sundaysalesmn.org) to make it easy for consumers to voice their opinions to legislators.
“I know they’re active, I’ve got about five thousand e-mails in my mailbox,” said Loon. “Every change to liquor laws is a pretty heavy lift for legislators. You really do need some grass-roots support and a groundswell of people who say, ‘Why not?’ ”
Loon acknowledges her legislation is similar to past bills, but she thinks selling local control may give some public officials wiggle room to endorse it.
“From a consumers’ standpoint, it’s about convenience,” said Loon. “But for border cities, it’s a real economic issue.”
David Schultz, a political-science professor at Hamline University, says the local option is an interesting compromise but “untenable.”
“Local governments already are ill-equipped to handle political pressures, lobbying and money from special interests,” said Schultz. “Second, there is a sense of inevitability here. One city allows sales, and a nearby one does not? What happens to business in the one town that does not allow it?”
Opponents of Sunday sales, such as the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, believe it would lead to wine sales in grocery stores. On its website, the association features studies that say restricting hours people can buy liquor helps public health. It also insists it would hurt smaller liquor stores, which would be forced to hire more people to work Sunday but wouldn’t necessarily see an increase in weekly gross sales. Loon said she’s seen no evidence thus far that would happen.
“I sympathize with mom-and-pop liquor stores that have raised concerns that the big guys can do this easier than they can,” Loon said. “But competition is something that exists in business and economic life. Some restaurants seem to manage to close on Sunday or Monday” while others stay open.
Loon said her bill would simply give cities a choice, and liquor stores can decide whether they open on Sunday. She is realistic enough to admit, “we have a long road to go.”
That fact “speaks to how politics work,” said Schmitt, who predicts Sunday sales would be a big benefit to new breweries. “It’s sad. I think it’s ultimately going to pass. I think they are going to have to listen to voters at some point.”