ST. PAUL - A bill legalizing Sunday sales of alcohol coming next week to the Minnesota Senate is very likely to pass, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Thursday.

Gazelka noted that the bill had successfully passed through a Senate committee, which to his knowledge had never happened before with a Sunday sales bill in Minnesota.

"That already tells you that momentum is building," he said.

He okayed the bill for a floor vote even though he had the option of stopping it, he said. However, Gazelka himself is remaining a "no" vote.

"This bill has been around for about 10 years," he said. "It seems like each year you have a growing number of people that are interested. I think that there's a growing number of people in the public that want it to happen. So, we (legislators) often do shift to what the public sentiment is."

The Minnesota House of Representatives already passed its version of the Sunday sales bill Feb. 20, by a 85-45 margin. The ban of Sunday sales has been the law in Minnesota since it became a state in 1858.

Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said in a news release that Sunday sales would help the Brainerd lakes area and that the state shouldn't mandate the stores close their doors on Sundays.

"This issue is important to our area since, especially during the summer months, tourism is an everyday operation," Lueck said. "Our small businesses serve a large population of customers that are in our area throughout the weekend."

Lueck joined Brainerd area colleagues Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, and Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls in voting for the bill. Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, voted against it.

The Senate bill differs from the House version in that the hours of sale allowed on Sunday are slightly shorter, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of the 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. range offered in the House bill. The difference will likely be worked in a conference committee between the two bodies.

Small liquor store owners concerned

However, uneasiness about the Sunday Sales initiative remains. Small liquor store owners are concerned lifting of the Sunday ban would create a disadvantage when they go up against larger liquor stores and grocery stores.

Will Eggert of Cornerstone Liquor on Washington Street in Brainerd said repealing the Sunday sales ban by itself wouldn't impact his store much. However, he was wary of the possibility of grocery stores and gas stations being allowed to sell liquor above 3.2 percent alcohol.

One liquor store owner and former state lawmaker said Sunday sales were the beginning of a slippery slope toward exactly that.

Paul Koering owns both North East Liquor and Baxter Liquor Mart. A former state legislator and current Crow Wing County Commissioner, Koering said he personally lobbied local legislators to vote against legalizing Sunday sales. It would increase labor costs for extra staffing, he said, and simply spread the same amount of weekend sales over two days instead of one.

"It's going to hurt small businesses like me," he said. "It's not going to hurt the Costcos and the Super Ones, because they're open anyway, because they have groceries."

Koering also questioned why the Legislature was working on Sunday sales before more wide-reaching issues like creating a new state budget.

"What a ridiculous thing," he said. "Get your work done first, rather than doing this stuff that really has no importance as far as the people of Minnesota are concerned."

In response to Koering, Gazelka pointed out that the Legislature can't do much regarding the budget until the February budget forecast - which shows what the state income and expenses will be like going forward - is released next Tuesday. A number of bills have already been passed ahead of Sunday sales, including bills on federal tax conformity, providing farm loans, health insurance premium relief, Gazelka said.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, a fellow member of the Senate from the Brainerd lakes area, wasn't impressed with that reasoning.

She's not just a "no" vote on the issue, she said - she's a "hell no." It was the wrong priority for Gazelka to choose, she said.

"I knocked on thousands of doors during the election cycle, and not one person said 'I want Sunday sales,'" she said.

Rural Minnesota legislators were opposed to the initiative because it would devastate their communities, she said. City-owned municipal liquor stores, whose profits help prevent higher property taxes, would suffer under Sunday sales, Ruud said.

"I tell people, 'How much more property tax do you want to pay so you can have a beer on Sunday?'" she said. "Those small towns depend on municipal liquor stores, rightly or wrongly, for revenue."