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Behind-the-scenes battle, public opinion turned the tide on Sunday liquor sales in Minnesota

ST. PAUL—In 10 short months, the Minnesota Legislature went from strong opposition to allowing liquor stores to open on Sundays to sending a repeal of the 159-year-old ban to Gov. Mark Dayton.

So, what happened?

Voters said they wanted what they saw as an antiquated law abolished, lobbying ramped up against it and powerful lawmakers put their full force behind the change. Dayton has said he will not veto the bill.

"This is the strongest grassroots effort by the people I've seen during my time in the Senate on any issue," said Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, chief sponsor of the Senate repeal bill. He was elected in 2011. "They spoke loud and clear and the timing was right to get it done."

But there's more to the story.

State lawmakers have debated the ban on Sunday liquor store sales, in place since statehood, every year since at least 2011. Behind the scenes was a public relations battle that included millions of dollars in lobbying by both sides.

This year, after a state and national election that was influenced by populist messages, the repeal effort paid off. Public support for Sunday sales was strong enough that lawmakers felt the pressure and changed their votes.

Not everyone is happy with the shift.

Owners of the state's roughly 1,000 independently owned liquor stores argue the repeal will cost each store as much as $50,000 a year so they can remain competitive. They also fear it will bring a flood of new chain and big-box retailers that can easily undercut them on pricing.

"This bill is brought to you by big liquor," said Sen. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, before the Senate approved the repeal with a 38-28 vote Monday. Laine was among 13 Democrats and 15 Republicans to oppose the measure in the Senate; another 45 lawmakers opposed the repeal in the House.

Their opposition was significantly smaller than past years when Sunday sales bills were easily defeated. The tide turned slowly, but it did turn.

In all, lawmakers from 45 districts, 12 in the Senate and 33 in the House, switched from no to yes votes on Sunday sales. A handful of those yes votes came from newly elected lawmakers whose predecessors opposed the repeal.

BIG LOBBYING

As lawmakers debated the repeal, they often cited local citizens and small-business owners in their speeches. But there was also big money behind the push for, and the opposition to, undoing the century old ban.

According to a Pioneer Press analysis, lobbying groups with keen interest in the issue spent nearly $2 million on lobbying Minnesota officials between 2011 and 2015, the latest year available.

In the anti-Sunday-sales column: the Teamsters union, the Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association, the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association and the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. Together they have spent about $1.2 million during the five-year stretch. They object to adding another delivery day to their work week — something the final bill forbade — and say opening on Sundays would hurt their bottom lines and ability to compete.

In the pro-hours-on-Sundays column: Total Wine & More, a big liquor store chain; the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., which represents alcohol producers and marketers; and the Minnesota Beer Activists, a local citizens group with backing from supporters. Those groups have spent about $800,000 on state lobbying from 2011 to 2015.

Lobbyists created campaigns, like "Why Not Sundays?" which used slogans, videos and social media to rally people around repealing what they characterized as an outdated law.

But lawmakers said the most effective lobbying came from people who received no payment to influence opinion. Brooklyn Park Rep. Melissa Hortman, the Democratic House leader, said her entire family lobbied her to switch from no to yes — including her grandmother shortly before she died, and her near-drinking-age kids.

Maple Grove Republican Kelly Eull, a lawyer who watched Republicans vote against Sunday sales in 2013, also decided to get involved.

"I started talking with people, I started talking with representatives," she said. She also researched the issue — collecting a stack of roll vote voting sheets — and used social media to pressure people to support Sunday sales.

How much time did she spend on it? "Enough time that my husband asked me what I am going to do now that it passed," she said.

NEW VOTES AND SWITCHERS

Not every lawmaker who helped push Sunday sales over the finish line had voted on the issue before.

New state Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, cast his first Sunday sales vote Feb. 18 in favor of repealing the ban. Sunday liquor sales was not a popular item on voters' minds when he was campaigning in his east metro district last fall. That changed when he got to the Legislature.

Since Franke took office, more than 100 residents contacted him about repealing the ban. Nearly all supported the move, and only a dozen or so lived in his district.

"It was definitely an organized effort," Franke said. "Not necessarily by big groups or organizations. ... It was more people on the street, phone calls and emails."

State Sen. Greg Clausen, an Apple Valley Democrat who just won a second term, said he had a similar experience. Clausen has cast 'no' votes on Sunday sales in the past, but said overwhelming support from his constituents pushed him to change his vote, though reluctantly.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican from near Crown who may run for governor next year, made it a top priority to get it passed. In fact, he said publicly that he stacked the House Commerce Committee with people who supported the repeal and marshaled other resources to get it done. He began his legislative career as an opponent of Sunday liquor store sales, then said repeal was not a priority in 2015. He became an ardent supporter in more recent years.

GEOGRAPHY

In the final votes that put the ban to bed, the geographic differences were stark in the House and the Senate.

Lawmakers from the metro area largely voted for the repeal, while many of those from nonmetro Minnesota voted against it.

"Are there some people in my district that think we should have Sunday sales? Yes, there are," said state Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne. But there was no great cry to repeal the ban and his municipal liquor stores, which make up the bulk of the providers in his area, didn't want it.

He hasn't heard much disappointment from his in-district opponents.

"I think there was a little more of a resigned acceptance," he said.

As the votes show, changing the law had much more support closer to the Twin Cities.

"It is a bigger issue for some of the millennial (and) for the libertarian segment of the party," he said.

There has also been a steadier push for the repeal from lawmakers — of both parties — from cities that share borders with other states.

"I've always been a yes on this one," said Rep. Deb Kiel, a Republican from Crookston, a 20-minute drive from North Dakota. On the vote map, she stands out as an outstate "yes" vote.

State Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, has also felt that border pressure. Her district — a short hop to Wisconsin where booze already is sold on Sundays — felt an urgency in getting the law changed.

"Every district is different on this one," she said.

LOCAL IMPACT

Paul Kaspszak, executive director of the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, worries that repealing the ban on Sunday sales is just the beginning. Smaller-store owners fear allowing alcohol sales in groceries and gas stations could be next.

That would be bad for independently run liquor stores who already struggle to compete with chain and big-box retailers. It would also be bad for consumers, Kaspszak said.

"You get rid of the small guys, and there will be less competition and less selection," Kaspszak said. "It's harder and harder for the smaller guy to compete. The small guy can't sell national brands at cost, but Total Wine can."

Not everyone thinks the repeal will hurt independent liquor stores.

For instance, the city of Lakeville has one of Minnesota's most successful liquor businesses in the state, and for years its city council vocally opposed repealing the ban on Sunday sales.

That changed this year. Recently elected council member Luke Hellier said turnover on the council and in the mayor's office helped city officials move from opposition to neutrality on Sunday sales.

Hellier expects repealing the ban will be good for Lakeville's liquor business, which is doing so well that city leaders have talked about opening a fourth store.

"I think we saw, as a city, the direction it was going and decided there was no need to oppose it anymore," Hellier said.

APPEASING OPPONENTS

In order to get legislation authorizing the repeal through the necessary legislative committees and a floor vote in both chambers, compromises were needed. Lawmakers negotiated to limit the hours stores could operate on Sundays, prohibit deliveries on Sundays and allow municipalities to override the repeal.

For Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, limiting the hours was a must if the bill was going to make it through the commerce committee he chairs. Dahms opposes Sunday alcohol sales, in part because he doesn't want workers and store owners to have to choose between work and church or family.

"I'm happy it is in the bill," Dahms said of a provision that limits operation between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. "I'm not happy the bill passed."

WHAT'S NEXT

Dayton has promised not to veto a bill that repeals the ban on Sunday sales if it reached his desk.

That means most Minnesota resident will be able to buy alcohol at a liquor store on Sundays starting July 2 unless a local law continues to ban Sunday sales.

And state lawmakers will be back to work on the next two-year budget and tackling other urgent issues like health care and a plan for road and bridge upkeep.

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