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Minnesota House panel takes first step to end Sunday liquor sales ban

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — The long-running debate over Sunday liquor sales in Minnesota is back with renewed strength to strike down the century-old ban.

“We are going to pass Sunday liquor sales out of the House this year,” promised House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

The Republican-controlled House started to make good on that promise Tuesday. Just three weeks into the Legislature’s 2017 session, a House committee — stacked, Daudt has said, to repeal the ban — approved lifting the ban on a 15-4 vote. For years, backers of removing the Sunday sales prohibition failed to win committee support and was rejected by the full House.

“This is a big, big deal,” said Rep. Jenifer Loon, an Eden Prairie Republican and chief sponsor of the repeal measure. The panel’s vote makes the bill ready for the a full House vote. The timing of that vote has not yet been set.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has long said he would not veto a measure lifting the decades-old “blue law,” but it remains unclear if it will reach his desk. Senators are not yet guaranteeing the measure will get a hearing or pass the Senate should it appear on the floor with or without first being heard in committee.

“Do I think I have 34 right now? I think I’m pretty close,” said Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound. Bills need 34 votes — a majority — to win Senate approval. “There is a culture changing here that we want to let businesses make decisions for themselves. … It is a very populist issue.”

Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said Tuesday that he, personally, is not a supporter of lifting the ban and was not yet sure whether the committee he chairs — where the Sunday sales ban would typically be heard — will hold a hearing on the issue.

Opponents have long said changing the law would have consequences beyond convenience for consumers. Lifting the ban could harm municipal liquor stores, which provide funds to local communities, and small businesses, which would feel competitive pressure to operate seven days a week, like the bigger stores do or face closure, they say.

“Our system is smart and balanced. It works well. We would urge you to continue to recognize the benefits that exist, and resist disruptive changes that might upset the current balance that exists,” Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, told lawmakers.

Backers say allowing the ban to expire would bring Minnesota in line with the nation — only a dozen states currently ban liquor hours on Sunday — and would reflect the busy shopping day that Sunday has become. According to polling, Minnesotans have long supported rescinding the Sunday prohibition.

“This is a change that consumers has been seeking and retailers have been seeking,” Loon said. “This does not force anyone to buy liquor or sell liquor on Sunday. This is about offering the option in the law for retailers that choose to take advantage of this change in the law and consumers that do so as well.”

Her bill acknowledges some of the critiques of the move to allow liquor stores to open on Sundays. It would allow liquor stores to operate on Sundays but only between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. It would also ban deliveries on Sundays, which had been a concern for Teamsters union members.

“I think that this issue has been ripe for compromise for years,” said Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan. She voted against the repeal last year on the floor but voted for it in committee Tuesday.

She was among four committee members who voted no on the House floor in 2016 but voted yes in committee Tuesday, a sign that the repeal move may be gaining strength. Even longtime opponents — who have come from both parties —  see this year as pivotal for the issue.

“It’s very popular with the public,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said this month. A former Senate majority leader and two-decade legislative veteran, he has been a key force in keeping the ban from being changed. He has not changed his opposition but acknowledges he might be in the minority.

“This might be the year that it passes.”

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