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Sunday sales soon? Minnesota House to vote on decades-long debate

It's closing time for the Sunday liquor sales debate as it looks increasingly likely Minnesota bottle shops will be open seven days a week come this summer.

The state House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill allowing Sunday sales Monday, and all signs point to passage. It still needs an OK from the state Senate; following that the governor has said he'd let the bill become law.

"The first step is to get it through the Senate Commerce Committee; there may be a hearing as soon as (this) week," said state Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, the deputy majority leader. "The next step is to get enough support on the Senate floor — I think it's going to be very close in both scenarios. But I'm hopeful that this is the year we can finally get it done."

So after maintaining the status quo banning Sunday liquor store commerce since Minnesota was made a state, it now seems a matter of when, not if, that old law will change.

Like any policy, there will be winners and losers as many shop owners begrudgingly flip their signs and consumers eagerly line up to buy Grain Belt after church.

Consumers

The clear winner of the Sunday sales battle, should it pass, will be consumers. Or at least it would appear so.

Drinkers in the Twin Ports have long had access to spirits on Sundays, since Wisconsin allows liquor stores to stay open until midnight every day of the week. (Iowa, North Dakota and Ontario, Canada, also allow Sunday sales, for those border residents).

The real benefit would come to those further instate, should local stores choose to open Sundays, although locally consumers could save some gas and spend their money closer to home.

"I would love to see this change happen in Minnesota so I can shop when my retailers would like to sell me their products," Andrew Schmidt of Minnesota Beer Activists testified at a House committee hearing in January.

He's not alone in his support.

Public Policy Polling placed Minnesotans' support for Sunday liquor sales at 67 percent for and 24 percent against as of 2015.

"That's something independents (71/21), Democrats (69/21) and Republicans (60/32) are all in agreement on, and it's something we've repeatedly found to be extremely popular in our polling over the years," the national firm said.

Polling only liquor store owners might net a different spread, however.

Liquor stores

There is less support for Sunday sales among small local stores, which say opening an extra day will come with extra costs but not enough extra revenue. And though the law won't force stores to open, competition from larger stores than can better afford to be open Sundays all but ensures small retailers have to as well.

The one big positive would seem to come from border cities getting business back. But while there is some leakage to Wisconsin, it's not exactly an entire day's worth of Minnesota sales.

"Sunday as a business day is our fourth busiest day — not as busy a day as you'd think," said Mark Casper, owner of Keyport liquor store in Superior. "People in Minnesota are very smart, they shop ahead of time. The amount of panic buying we see on a Sunday is maybe 5 percent of our Sunday business."

Pushing back on Sunday sales is the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which said in a statement last month that "authorizing Sunday liquor sales will raise costs for both consumers and small, family-owned businesses."

The MLBA appears to see the writing on the walls, however, and did not bring a roster of liquor store owners to testify against the move last month. It still pointed out that the laws in place are working, and this appears to be the first step toward opening the doors to allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell beer, wine and possibly spirits — which could devastate small businesses.

The state

One oft-repeated argument in favor of Sunday sales is increased tax revenues for the state.

Minnesota's budget estimates about $90 million per year, on average, from the liquor, beer and wine tax over the next few years. (That's not counting sales tax revenue that would come in addition to the excise taxes.)

A report by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States in 2011 said Sunday sales could bring in an extra $10.6 million annually — though with a budget running close to $40 billion a year that wouldn't make too much difference.

It could make a difference in the public health realm, with the medical journal Addiction saying relaxed Sunday sales laws in several other states led to an increase in per capita alcohol consumption.

There is still the question of increased prices due to increased operating costs and competition from Wisconsin liquor stores. As of 2016, Minnesota had the 13th highest tax on liquor, 11th highest tax on beer and 16th highest tax on wine among all states, according to the Tax Foundation. Wisconsin, meanwhile, had the 40th and 48th and 42nd highest tax rates on liquor, beer and wine, respectively.

That might explain why Superior stores aren't sweating the possible change.

"I don't see it having much of an effect at all," Casper said.

The bill

H.F. 30 goes before the full House of Representatives Monday after passing out of committee 15-4 last month.

The bill would allow liquor stores to be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. It would prohibit deliveries being made to or accepted by liquor stores on Sundays.

If the bill passes the House, Senate and is allowed to become law by the governor, July 2 would be the first Sunday allowing liquor sales in Minnesota since it became a state in 1858.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks covers business and the economy for the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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