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Lobbyists to continue fighting Sunday liquor sales ban

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A Minnesota House vote to uphold the state's ban on Sunday liquor sales won't deter consumers and political groups opposed to the ban. Here, workers stocked boxes of whiskey at Total Wine in Roseville, Tuesday, July 29, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2014

The Minnesota House once again upheld Minnesota's longtime ban on Sunday liquor store sales this week, but supporters of changing the law aren't giving up.

Groups who want Sunday sales say the 75-57 House vote shows the debate is slowly but surely shifting in their favor.

"It's not a matter of if it happens, it's a matter of when it happens," said Andrew Schmitt, director of the Minnesota Beer Activists, a group pushing to overturn the ban. "It's heartening to see that people are being listened to."

In 2013, a vote on a similar bill was much more decisive, with 106 House legislators voting to keep the ban. 

A growing number of consumers and political groups with ties to libertarian organizations have been working to shift opinion at the Capitol. Their case has been particularly strong among Republicans, who control the Minnesota House this year. 

Among those who flipped his vote since 2013 is Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who said he was swayed by constituents who told him they want the law changed.  

"After I voted against Sunday sales, it was really the first time I started to hear from people on the issue," Zerwas said. "I pretty was surprised. So over the last two years ... I've challenged my constituents to say 'if this is an issue for you, please make this a priority and let me know how you feel.'"

Though the Minnesota Senate voted down an effort to overturn the ban earlier this month, eight Senators switched their vote from last year. Also, polls conducted in recent years by Public Policy Polling show a majority of Minnesotans support overturning the ban.

But opponents, mainly wholesalers and small liquor store owners who are concerned they will lose money if they're open on Sundays, have still been able to defend the ban. 

"There would be an enormous negative impact to both the off-sale and on-sale industries, which have been operating and making business decisions under the established rules for a long time," said Kim Wilson, a legislation opponent who owns Oaks Wine and Spirits in Oak Park Heights.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters Union has raised concerns about delivering to liquor stores on Sundays.

The issue gained steam in 2011 when the Legislature approved a bill to allow craft breweries to serve beer on site. Since then, groups on both sides of the Sunday sales issue have spent more than $600,000 each lobbying the Legislature. 

Schmitt, who works as a security contractor by day and is a self-professed beer enthusiast, created Minnesota Beer Activists in 2011. In his view, consumers were being left out of the debate. 

"We saw that distributors, and retailers were up at the Capitol talking to legislators, saying 'we want this changed; we don't want this changed,' and no one was asking the people who buy the beer, who buy the wine, who keep these [businesses] in business," Schmitt said.

These days, Schmitt and a handful of volunteers primarily rely on social media to build the group's membership and to pressure legislators on the issue.

They have a small budget that relies on member donations, T-shirt sales and a relatively small amount of funding from the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. But Schmitt said all the work on social media amounts to free advertising.

It's not just beer enthusiasts working to overturn the ban.

Walter Hudson, a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Minnesota and a media personality, has been talking up the issue on his podcast. Hudson said voting to overturn the ban is "Republicanism 101."

"The bread and butter of the Republican brand is individual rights and free markets," Hudson said on a recent episode of his podcast, "Fightin Words."

"Then they turn around and vote to maintain an archaic [law] that's a direct assault on individual rights and complete denial of the free market," he said.

Paul Carlson, deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity — Minnesota chapter, a group with libertarian ties, said his organization has spent more money than ever before directly and indirectly lobbying overturn the ban.

"There aren't a lot of districts where this isn't popular," said Carlson, whose group is an arm of Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by libertarian political donors, businessmen and brothers Charles and David Koch. 

"People have come to us when they find out we are in favor of this."

For his part, Schmitt said he's already looking to the next legislative session — and a new chance to fight for Sunday liquor sales.