The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 26, 2013

Sunday liquor sales killed again by lobby

By James Nord

— A key backer of Sunday liquor sales acknowledges that the perennial issue isn’t going anywhere this session.

The Senate Commerce Committee heard Sen. Roger Reinert’s alcohol bill on Monday, but no vote was taken.

The Democrat from Duluth said Sunday sales legislation doesn’t currently have a House committee hearing scheduled, and said it’s unlikely the measure will come up for a vote in the Senate.

“This issue is not going anywhere, and it’s not going anywhere until all of the people out there who stop me all the time and say, ‘Hey, we love it,’ are willing to do more than just tell me they love it,” a beleaguered Reinert said in an interview. “Primarily because the strength of the liquor store lobby.”

Backers of the bill include individual liquor stores and — polling suggests — most of the public, but union members and the mainstream liquor lobby have pushed hard against the measure for many years.

The political director of the Teamsters Joint Council 32 and a lobbyist for the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association both testified Monday against the legislation.

The Teamsters oppose the bill because the union’s members don’t want to work on Sundays.

Marryann Campo, who has worked with South Lyndale Liquors since 1975, said her family opposes Sunday sales because it wouldn’t be economically beneficial for their business.

Supporters, including Jason Alvey, owner of the St. Louis Park specialty liquor store the Four Firkins, say the law wouldn’t force any business to stay open on Sundays.

Reinert considers Sunday liquor sales as a free-market issue.

“It is the year 2013, yet I pay rent 52 days a year that I’m not allowed to open my business, and I think that’s very frustrating,” Alvey told the committee. “Let’s gain the extra tax revenue. Let’s give the people what they want. Let’s give progressive retailers like myself the ability to run our businesses how we see fit.”

Reinert told MinnPost that if consumers want the longstanding law to change, they have to do something to combat the powerful interests pushing for the status quo.

“You have a powerful lobby in the liquor stores. You have a powerful union with the Teamsters, and those two pair up, and they’re here every day talking to legislators,” Reinert said.

“Everybody always asks me, ‘Who’s asking for this?’ People. Remember those folks out there that we’re supposed to represent that shouldn’t have to have a lobbyist and an organization to make something happen? That’s who’s in favor of it.”

A grass-roots group called Minnesota Beer Activists has come forward to fill that void.

Andrew Schmitt, the organization’s director, thanked Metzen for holding the hearing after it had finished and casually dropped into conversation that the group had a 2,000-person-strong petition asking for Sunday sales.

Reinert believes that’s the sort of action necessary to change the law. He points to the success of the so-called “Surly bill” — which came from the support of beer lovers across the state.

“I think the politicians are used to hearing lobbyists. They’re down here every day, but consumers don’t have a chance to get their voice heard. They’re busy working, paying the bills,” Schmitt said. “Although we don’t make great beer, we sure support it. That’s one of the great challenges. As a consumer organization, we don’t have a bunch of money to throw behind it.”

Commerce Committee Chairman James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he’s likely willing to have a straightforward vote on the measure if Reinert pushes for it. 

Metzen, who said he hasn’t formed an opinion on the issue, said he isn’t sure if it would pass through the committee. “That’s why I think [Reinert’s] hesitating,” he said.

Reinert said House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Atkins told him that a Sunday sales bill wouldn’t get a hearing in the House, a factor that’s contributed to his pessimism.

Atkins said he wasn’t sure there would be a hearing in the House or whether a House bill will be introduced.

“I don’t know yet,” he said when asked if the measure would get a hearing. “I’ve got to read the bill.”

Reinert made an appropriate quip at the beginning of the Senate Commerce Committee hearing: “This is an extremely lengthy bill,” he joked. “I think we have five lines of text to it.”