Thirsty for change, Minnesota legislators plan to try once more to lift the state's long-standing ban on Sunday liquor sales.
The Legislature debates Sunday liquor sales regularly, but every year the blue laws remain firmly in place. This year's effort is being driven by a pair of state senators who live just across the water from the seven-days-a-week liquor stores of Wisconsin.
"Every single state or province that borders us has Sunday liquor sales," said state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, who has been pushing the change for years. The bipartisan bill he introduced Monday with state Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, would legalize off-site liquor sales on Sundays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
"It's time to jump into the 21st century," Reinert said.
Minnesota is one of just 12 states that still ban Sunday liquor sales. And that's the way the liquor stores like it.
"Everything isn't about convenience," said Jack Lanners, president of the MGM Wine & Spirits stores. "Some things should be controlled, and liquor is one of them."
Selling on Sunday might bring in more sales -- particularly for merchants near the borders of Wisconsin, Iowa, Canada and either of the Dakotas -- but sellers worry that they'd simply be spreading six days of sales across seven days, and losing their day of rest in the process.
"We just want to keep things as they are," said Frank Ball, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, a group that represents more than 3,000 bars and liquor stores.
For years, the group has managed to do just that, blocking not just Sunday liquor sales, but wine in the grocery stores, new liquor excise taxes and myriad other changes in the status quo. The extra convenience of Sunday sales for customers, he said, should not outweigh the problems a change in the law could mean for the small businesses he represents.
"Wisconsin's got their way of doing things, and Minnesotans have their way of doing things," Ball said.
Polls show widespread support for Sunday liquor sales -- 59 percent in favor, 29 percent opposed in a June poll of Minnesotans by Public Policy Polling. But Reinert says the message he gets from legislative leaders is: "We know it's going to change, but this is not the year."
Meanwhile, Reinert said, liquor store owners in Duluth watch their customers cross the bridge every Sunday, taking their business and their money next door to Wisconsin.
Reinert harbors doubts that his bill will fare any better under the new Democratic leadership than it did when the Legislature was under Republican control. Last session, he said, Sunday liquor sales rallied support from the conservative Tea Party wing of the GOP, whose members objected to government telling stores which days they could do business.
A coalition of Tea Party Republicans and some Democrats teamed with Reinert to push the bill out of the commerce committee in 2011 -- a first for a Sunday liquor sale bill in the Legislature.
But the bill never made it to the floor, and every attempt to bring the issue up so far has ended in a thunderous defeat. An attempt to add Sunday liquor sales to the House omnibus liquor bill in 2012 mustered only 25 votes in support, and 97 in opposition.
"There's nothing I can do until the public says this is going to change," Reinert said.
To that end, members of the Minnesota Beer Activists are circulating an online petition on their site, mnbeeractivists.com. As of Monday evening, 1,300 people had signed.
"A few phone calls can really make a difference," said the group's executive director, Andrew Schmitt. "All we can do is work hard and hope for the best."
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049