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Despite cost to municipal liquor stores, Minn. lawmakers advance Sunday sales bill

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's 159-year-old ban on Sunday liquor sales appears headed for repeal, but not before the debate among lawmakers ferments a little bit longer.

The Minnesota Senate voted 38-28 Monday, Feb. 27, to end the prohibition on liquor stores being open on Sunday, following in the footsteps of the House, which passed a similar repeal last week.

“I was confident we had the votes to pass the bill,” said Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, who is  chief sponsor of the Senate measure. “This was a strong effort for the people by the people.”

But the two pieces of legislation have a slight difference that will need to be worked out in conference committee.

The Senate bill would allow liquor stores to operate on Sundays between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. while the House version lets them open an hour earlier.

The later time made it into the Senate bill because opponents of repealing the ban, including Sen. Gary Dahmes who chairs the commerce committee it needed to clear to get to the Senate floor, wanted workers to have time on Sunday to spend with their families or to attend church.

Eden Prairie Republican Jenifer Loon, who authored the House bill, said the extra hour in the House bill reflects one eight-hour shift, rather than two shorter shifts or possible overtime for other employees.

Legislators will have to iron out the differences in the bills by a conference committee unless House members agree with the Senate version.

"Do I feel strongly about the one less hour? Not terribly," Loon said. "I prefer the 10-6 (hours), but I think there's a chance it signs into law and within a few years people will come back asking us to adjust the hours."

Nevertheless, the ban on Sunday sales, in place since Minnesota became a state, appears to be nearly over. If lawmakers can find a compromise on operation hours, Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign the repeal.

Supporters of the repeal say their constituents demand it and government shouldn't regulate the days of the week a business can be open.

"This bill doesn't have much to do with alcohol for me," said Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska. "For me, this is about artificially restraining the free marketplace, and whenever we can, I think we should get government out of the way and let people make our own decisions."

Minnesota is one of 12 remaining states to ban liquor sales on Sundays.

Some residents and lawmakers say the restriction no longer reflects Minnesotans' values or lifestyles.

"While I still pine nostalgically for driving up to the neighbor's or playing cards on Sunday, it's not how we live now," said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. "People skip church to go to hockey tournaments, basketball practice happens Sunday afternoon. Times have changed significantly, and I think it's time for a little update to our liquor laws."

Although proponents of seven-day liquor sales said the extra day will keep consumers' money in Minnesota, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said Wisconsin's lower sales taxes could continue drawing shoppers from border towns.

"This is not going to stop them," he said. "If they want to buy cheaper booze on Sunday, open liquor (stores) isn't going to matter much, they'll still go over for that sale, that reduced rate."

Opponents also worry the repeal would hurt small business that will have to be open another day to stay competitive, but will not experience the added sales needed to cover costs.

Business owners would ultimately decide whether to open Sundays, but Sen. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth, said small retailers would have little choice.

"There are big-box retailers that are already open on Sundays just waiting for the opportunity to sell liquor, should this law pass," he said. "The small businesses are going to be forced to follow suit. They're going to lose revenue, and that's a real thing to them. The people they employ are real Minnesotans depending on real jobs with benefits."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, was among Senators from greater Minnesota to scrutinize how Sunday liquor sales would affect municipal liquor stores.

The city-owned liquor store in his hometown, he said, generates about $145,000 in net revenue annually, about the equivalent of $700 per homeowner.

Dahmes also cited tax implications for his vote against the bill.

"If it's a municipal store and they have their sales for seven days, they're going to see less income, which affects the tax base and the property taxes in those small communities," he said.

The bill has drawn mixed reactions from the alcohol industry.

The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which represents mostly small liquor retailers, urged legislators to "keep a level playing field" as they consider other proposals related to the industry.

“Today’s vote may seem like the popular decision to some, but its impact on small, family-owned liquor stores will be negative," said MLBA Executive Director Tony Chesak. "Small, family-owned liquor stores and consumers throughout Minnesota will see higher costs because of this."

National organization the Distilled Spirits Council applauded the Senate vote as a step towards modernizing Minnesota's marketplace.

The Council estimates Sunday sales could generate more than $10 million in new tax revenue for Minnesota and increase the state's sales volume by up to 7 percent annually.

“Lawmakers have stepped up to end this outdated Blue Law and we urge the governor to finally lift the ban," said Council Vice President Dale Szyndrowski. "Let’s make sure visitors to Minnesota for next year’s Super Bowl buy from local businesses and invest their tax dollars in state instead of making a trip to the border.”

The Sunday sales vote couldn’t have come at a better time for lawmakers, many of whom want to put the issue behind them. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said with the latest state economic forecast due out Tuesday, it was time to focus on crafting a budget and other important issues.

“If it passes, I’m rolling up my sleeves and working on all those other things and I’m not looking back,” Gazelka said before the vote Monday. “If it fails, don’t ask me to bring this up this year or next year, maybe the year after that we’ll talk about it when we have a new House.”

Forum News Service reporter Maureen McMullen and Pioneer Press reporters Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and David Montgomery contributed to this report.