A shift in Minnesota’s political landscape may finally afford Minnesotans the luxury of buying liquor on Sundays this year.
Some lawmakers say the new climate inside the Capitol offers the best chance yet to repeal the 80-year-old “blue law” that prohibits Sunday sales and has withstood all previous attempts at change. The catalyst: A Republican-controlled House full of newcomers led by Speaker Kurt Daudt, who recently voiced strong support for the change. A push for repeal in the GOP House, along with backing from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, could compel the DFL-controlled Senate to go along, making seven-day-a-week sales a reality.
“Clearly the new majority and the new speaker make a huge difference,” said Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, who led earlier efforts to allow Sunday sales. “You’ve never had leadership in support before, and those are new and powerful factors. I will continue to say that the path to victory is through the House. Without the new majority and new speaker, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.”
Minnesota remains one of just a dozen states that still block Sunday alcohol sales. The state’s grocery stores can’t even sell 3.2 beer — the only kind they’re allowed to carry — before 10 a.m. on Sundays. Liquor can be sold only in liquor stores, and some cities further control the market by restricting sales to municipal stores. The states surrounding Minnesota all allow Sunday sales.
Polls have consistently shown popular support for Sunday sales, but the state’s strong network of independently owned liquor stores has provided a potent roadblock, aided by Senate Democrats.
The DFL Senate may yet be able to block change from reaching Dayton’s desk. The governor made clear last year he’d sign a Sunday sales law.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he remains opposed to a repeal on behalf of municipal liquor stores — who say they would face overtime costs that would tax city budgets — and independent stores who don’t want to feel forced to stay open on Sundays. Bakk believes a Senate vote would be close and has been surprised by the change in the House.
“There’s never been an appetite before in the House to do that,” Bakk said.
Bakk wouldn’t commit to allowing a Senate floor vote even if the House passes the bill but said he would be open to allowing the Sunday sales of “growlers” (refillable beer containers) from taprooms, a measure that failed last year.
Daudt has switched sides since voting against a Sunday sales amendment in 2013 and thinks it could be the sleeper issue of the session. The newly elected speaker said he voted against the measure earlier because he had not heard from constituents eager for Sunday sales.
Still, he doesn’t intend to pressure his caucus to back a repeal.
“Folks can make up their minds on how it affects their district. We’ll let the process work itself out,” he said.
Municipal and independent liquor store owners have long wielded strong influence among lawmakers. Together, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association (MMBA) spent about $169,000 on lobbying in 2012 and 2013.
The groups scoff at the argument that Sunday sales would boost revenues, saying it would merely spread out six days of business across seven days, only costing more in labor.
“Alcohol is not a commodity. It’s a controlled substance. You don’t wake up on Sunday morning and say ‘Gee, let’s go buy alcohol’ like you’re going to buy a sweater at the mall,” said MMBA Executive Director Paul Kaspszak. “Granted, people will say you don’t have to be open, but if your competitor’s open, you have to be open. ... Everybody’s talking about ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ well, Sunday sales isn’t going to grow jobs and it has the potential of costing jobs.”
However, not all liquor retailers are opposed to the ban. Maryland-based Total Wine & More, which has four locations in the Twin Cities, has pushed to repeal bans in many of the 16 states where it operates. Minnesota is no exception.
“Consumers are asking for this; they’re questioning why they can’t come in and shop our stores and other stores on Sunday,” said Edward Cooper, vice president of public affairs for Total Wine & More. “We’re supportive of this, and we’re optimistic that the Legislature will hear the residents of the state.”
Last year, Reinert and Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, attempted a piecemeal approach to ending the ban with multiple bills — some would have ended the ban entirely, while others just eased it.
Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, supports Sunday sales but is willing to amend the bill to keep liquor stores closed until noon on Sunday to mollify opposition. He also said he would consider prohibiting Sunday alcohol deliveries to stores if that would help. In 2014 an attempt at Sunday taproom sales of growlers ran into heavy opposition from Teamsters, who were concerned that the change in the law could reopen their labor contracts, interfering with wages and benefits.
Loon, who also plans to introduce a bill for a straightforward repeal, said the support of both Daudt and Dayton is “incredibly important” but is tempering her optimism.
“I’m realistic enough to know that something less than [full repeal] may be necessary to get it passed through the body, given how difficult this topic has been in the past,” she said. “I firmly believe it’s going to happen, but trying to guess the time frame is a little difficult.”
Minnesota’s Sunday sales ban was enacted in 1935 — two years after Prohibition was repealed. The law that had imposed prohibition, the Volstead Act, got its name from the Minnesotan congressman, Andrew Volstead, who proposed it.
The last substantial attempt to repeal the ban on Sunday sales was in 2013, when a DFL-led House defeated the measure 106-21.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said he voted against repeal in the past, and likely would again, if only because of concerns from liquor store owners in his district, along with mayors of cities whose municipal liquor sales bolster the city budget.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, likely won’t be swayed on a potential repeal, no matter how it’s structured.
“I think my district has certainly sent the message that we can take a day off from people being able to purchase alcohol,” he said. “They like that tradition.”
In the Minnesota House, where socially conservative support of a Sunday ban is being eroded by the GOP’s desire for a free market and less government, the 26 freshmen could make an impact.
Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she believes businesses should be open only when they want to be, but wants to hear constituents before taking a stance. Rep. David Baker, R-Willmar, a business owner, is inclined to let businesses operate as they wish. But he’s concerned for the smaller stores in his conservative district.
“If I had to vote tomorrow, I’d leave it the way it is,” he said. “But I haven’t heard all sides yet.”
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.