Minnesota Legislature votes to nix liquor sales ban

Published 10:21 am Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What time should stores be open?

ST. PAUL — After a decade of stalled and failed efforts, Minnesota’s Legislature has voted to allow Sunday liquor store sales as the Senate passed a bill Monday repealing the state’s long-standing ban.

The Senate’s 38-28 approval of the bill put an exclamation point on an unprecedented effort to finally take down the state’s old Blue Law that makes Minnesota one of just 12 states to ban Sunday liquor sales. The House overwhelmingly passed similar legislation last week.

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The bill would allow liquor stores to open on Sundays beginning in July, but it’s not law yet. Supporters of the legislation hoped that slight differences in the Senate and House bills — chiefly, the House measure allows stores to open at 10 a.m. while the Senate one makes it an hour later — wouldn’t delay delivery to Gov. Mark Dayton, who has vowed to sign it. If the House accepts the shorter window, that could happen as soon as later this week.

Advocates behind the repeal push credited everyday citizens for urging their legislators to help undo the ban. Just two years ago, the effort failed the Senate by a wide margin.

“This was a strong effort from the people by the people,” said Sen. Jeremy Miller, a Winona Republican who led the charge in the Senate. “They spoke loud and clear. The timing was right to get it done, and we did.”

Between the House and Senate, 31 lawmakers who had previously voted to uphold the Sunday sales ban voted this year to repeal it. Add in an influx of new lawmakers more likely than their predecessors to support the repeal effort and an extra push from Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, and lawmakers have put the state on the precipice of allowing Sunday liquor sales for the first time since Minnesota’s 1858 statehood.

“I believe it’s time. Actually … I believe it’s past time,” Sen. Carla Nelson, a Rochester Republican, said before voting to lift the ban. “It is time that we move on and allow those businesses that wish to be open on Sundays to sell liquor.”

The Sunday liquor sale ban is a rare issue that cuts across partisan lines, instead dividing lawmakers more geographically — the overwhelming majority of senators who voted against the repeal Monday were from rural districts. And though the law allows individual liquor stores and even whole cities to decide whether to open their doors on Sunday, opponents argued that competition with bigger retailers would force small and family-owned shops to stay open seven days a week.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk rattled off a list of small businesses in his district that have closed in the last several decades, warning that local liquor stores would soon join those ranks if the measure became law.

“There is a reason that this has never passed,” said Bakk, who represents a huge swath of rural northeastern Minnesota. “You’re probably not going to take a vote this session that breaks more rural and urban than this.”

But even ardent opponents were clearly tired of dealing with the issue year after year.

“I would prefer this vote be done, and either it passes or it doesn’t pass, and we move on to the budget,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said before voting no.

That same fatigue could help clear up the small differences between the House and Senate bills. Rep. Jenifer Loon, the House author, said while she’d prefer allowing liquor stores to open an hour earlier than the 11 a.m. window set in the Senate, she’s ready to “get these issues off my plate.”

The House could vote to accept the Senate’s bill yet this week, which would send it on to Dayton’s desk.