Jason Alvey says he’s tired of mincing his words when it comes to the powerful lobbying forces that have protected a decades-old ban on Sunday alcohol sales in Minnesota.
The native Australian, who owns the Four Firkins craft beer store in St. Louis Park, is a rarity among liquor store owners: He wants to see the ban lifted. He’s the face of a growing movement of mostly metro-area and border community beer store owners and brewers who call themselves the Minnesota Beer Activists and want to reframe the perennial issue at the Capitol as a question of what the public wants rather than what liquor store owners want. He cites a poll from Public Policy Polling in May of this year that puts approval ratings for Sunday alcohol sales at 62 percent, with bipartisan support.
“Customers overwhelmingly want this, and the number one rule of retail is listen to your customers,” Alvey said. “Some of these liquor store owners — it’s a very old boys’ club. A lot of these owners are in their eighties. We are talking about silver-haired old men who haven’t stepped a foot in their retail stores for years. They are so out of touch with their customers, it’s a joke, and these are the guys who are overwhelmingly the majority.”
Most of the liquor store owners in the state are members of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), a powerful lobbying force at the Capitol. Opponents argue Sunday sales would cost Mom and Pop liquor shops by forcing them to be open seven days a week while simply stretching out the same revenue they’d make in six days. They win most of their battles in St. Paul — Minnesota is one of just 12 states that still restrict Sunday liquor sales, and most of the state’s core regulations governing the industry date back to the end of prohibition.
“It’s the pig that just won’t die,” MLBA executive director Frank Ball said of Sunday liquor sales, trying to recall an exact quote from Republican Rep. Greg Davids. A folksy former police chief and sheriff from rural Minnesota, Ball is practiced in talking about the issue. He’s been doing it some form or another for much of his life.
“I think we have a really good lobbying effort representing not only the interests of liquor stores, but also in talking about issues with selling a controlled substance to our public. There’s a high cost of that, in insurance and in health care, and when we talk to the Legislature, they buy into that,” Ball added. “The craft beer people are coming in and saying, ‘Why do we need all these regulations?’ It’s not tires, batteries, et cetera. It’s booze we are talking about, and legislators listen.”
But Sunday liquor sales supporters are teeing up the issue for the 2014 session anyway, and they say there are reasons to feel encouraged about its chances. “The folks who support Sunday sales are starting sooner, [and] they seem to be gaining a little more momentum than they have in past interims,” said Joe Atkins, chair of the House Commerce Committee and last year’s author of the House omnibus liquor bill. “They are more organized than they’ve ever been before.”
The sale of liquor on Sunday is a complex issue politically. It unites libertarian, free-market Republicans with the far left in support of removing the ban, while the religious right and moderate, business-friendly Democrats typically join hands to defeat attempts to change the law.
The MLBA understands the dynamics, and regularly enlists its nearly 2,000 members across the state to make phone calls and meet with their legislators. The group spends big on lobbying and pumps some money into elections — their campaign spending is hard to track, because members tend to donate individually to candidates — but MLBA’s real power is in its sheer size and scope.
“I don’t think there’s another industry that captures the hearts of more people than the liquor industry,” Ball said. “We have 87 counties, and in those counties and they have Mom and Pop stores and they vote and they are politically active. It’s a powerful group of people, because they influence a lot of candidates.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the MLBA has powerful allies. Each year the group joins forces with the Teamsters Joint Council 32 union and liquor industry lobbyists. Then there’s DFL bundler and attorney Sam Kaplan, who has served as counsel for the liquor industry. “He’s been a big hitter,” said Bernie Hesse, political director at UFCW Local 1189, who tried to get wine sold in grocery stores. “He has been a kingmaker, and the DFL caucuses have always respected his views.”
The combined influence of these forces was easy to see last session. While the issue managed to get a hearing in both the House and Senate commerce committees in the same year — a first — opposition from the MLBA kept it from landing in the omnibus liquor bills. It didn’t help that lawmakers were also debating a possible 7-cent-per-drink tax hike on alcohol.
Senators held off on pushing the issue after an informational committee hearing, but DFL Rep. Tina Liebling brought Sunday liquor sales as an amendment to the omnibus bill on the House floor. When it came time to vote, legislators shot Sunday sales down on a 106-21 vote. Another amendment to allow liquor stores to choose which six days of the week they want to be open, offered by DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, also went down in flames on a 122-5 vote. That’s even worse than the proposal’s fate in 2012, when legislators rejected Sunday liquor sales on the floor by a 97-25 vote.
“The power and might of this lobbying organization on this issue is just massive,” said GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski, who supports Sunday liquor sales. “It’s going to be hard to beat them until the issue itself gains enough importance of the minds of the public.”
Building public pressure
Most Sunday sales supporters agree with Drazkowski— polling data, absent real public pressure, has gotten them nowhere.
“Believe it or not, I don’t get all worked up about polls. My sense is that you’ve got folks who get asked a question over the phone about would you support it, and they say yes, but the next question isn’t asked, which is how strongly do you support it?” said Atkins, who added that he plans to wait for hearings to take a position on Sunday liquor sales. “You’ve got the same question posed to mayors, and city council members and Mom and Pop liquor store owners, and they often say no, and you ask them how they feel about it, and they start jumping up and down.”
Duluth DFL Sen. Roger Reinert, who serves a border community abutting Wisconsin, which allows Sunday sales, says he’s hoping for public mobilization in the interim. “People who hang around the Capitol know that things don’t move as quickly as you may want them to, but we will be using the interim to mobilize the 60 percent [that support this],” he said. “Opponents have benefited from the lack of organization around supporters, but that won’t always be the case.”
Efforts are in progress. Reinert says some liquor stores may start advertising in support of Sunday liquor sales, and members of the Minnesota Beer Activists are already meeting with legislators. A documentary about the issue is also in the works. Ben Jenkins, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council, said his group is “exploring ways” to get the message out that “Sunday sales is a great way to generate revenue without raising taxes.” That could include newspaper ads, he said.
For his part, Alvey is encouraged about the chances to repeal the longstanding ban. Democrats who control the Senate included the issue in their annual State Fair poll questionnaire, which is usually an issue teaser for the upcoming legislative session. Supporters also hope to take advantage of a light legislative agenda next year and push the issues as a winner for lawmakers at the 2014 ballot box.
The key, still, is public pressure, he said. “Legislators tell me all the time, I hear from the MLBA and their liquor store owners every single day about how they don’t want this repealed, but they never hear from constituents,” he said. “We need to get their phones ringing off the hook. We need them to say, ‘What the hell are you doing? You need to stop listening to the lobbyists. You need to listen to us, the voters.’”