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South Washington County lawmakers on Sunday alcohol sales: Yes, yes, undecided

Members of the Minnesota House voted Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, to pass a bill allowing Sunday liquor sales. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service

South Washington County lawmakers’ positions on legalizing Sunday alcohol sales may reflect the issue’s status in the Minnesota Legislature.

With an 85-45 House vote Feb. 20, attention shifted to the Senate, where a similar proposal cleared its only committee stop Feb. 22 but may have less support among all senators.

Two local House members, GOP Reps. Tony Jurgens of Cottage Grove and Keith Franke of St. Paul Park, voted to lift the prohibition.

Jurgens said he supported lifting the ban because an “overwhelming” majority of constituents back the effort. However, he said, he surveyed liquor store operators in his district prior to the vote. A narrow majority of those he spoke with also favored repeal, he said.

“It more or less confirmed the direction I was planning on going anyway, but it was reassuring to know that at least some — a small majority — of the liquor stores were in agreement,” he said.

Jurgens said the alcohol sales issue generated at least as much public comment to him as any issue so far in his freshman term.

Franke said he voted to lift the liquor sale ban to give people more choice. He owns a bar, which has not reopened after a fire last year.

“As a small business owner, I understand the need to let consumers choose what's best for them, and consumers have made it very clear they want to purchase alcohol on Sundays," Franke said. “I voted for this measure because it had support from residents in my district, and I didn’t encounter any opposition from local liquor stores."

Attention has shifted to the Senate, where the bill’s passage is less certain. A committee hearing is planned this week.

Sen. Dan Schoen, for one, said he doesn’t know how he would vote if it reaches the Senate floor.

“I haven’t decided so far,” Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said in an interview, adding that he wants to review bill details.

Schoen also said he favors repealing all of the state’s Sunday sale prohibitions at once, rather than just voting to lift the liquor ban. The state’s ban on Sunday auto dealer sales is another frequently mentioned prohibition.

“Everything should be taken away,” he said of a broader repeal.

Schoen said it’s ironic some of the same advocates of the liquor ban repeal strongly oppose lifting the auto sales prohibition.

“For me, it’s inevitable this is going to change at some point in time,” he said. “I just think it should just change all at once and be done.”

Jurgens preferred that they were not lumped together. Public opinion is different on the liquor sales prohibition and the auto sales ban, he said.

“I understand how some people want to tie those together, but to me they’re separate issues,” he said.  

Franke said he didn’t give the issue much thought heading into the session, but he said plenty of people wanted to tell them what they thought.

“I got so many emails in support of this, and (comments from) people on the street,” he said. Franke said one person wrote him to say they should focus on taxes, health care and other big topics, and he agrees.

“It’d be nice if people could rally behind other issues,” Franke said.

Franke is rebuilding his namesake bar, which was damaged last year in a fire. If anything, he said, lifting the Sunday sales ban could hurt his business because people would be able to buy alcohol and go home.

“I might have shot my pinkie toe off with a vote,” he joked.

The House approval was the first time either chamber of the state Legislature has approved removing a ban that dates back to statehood. It also was the first time the House has debated a full Sunday sales bill, although lawmakers have tried for years to amend other bills to allow liquor stores to be open Sundays.

"Family life and consumers are a lot busier than they were years ago," bill author Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said. "The consumers of Minnesota have spoken."

The bill representatives backed allows liquor stores to be sell beer, liquor and wine 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, but bans alcoholic beverages from being delivered to the stores Sundays.

Some opposition to Sunday sales disappeared this year after House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, flipped from opposing to supporting the change. With that and polls showing Minnesotans want the stores to be open, the possibility of dumping the sales ban has gained steam.

However, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association executive director said the group will continue to fight the legislation.

"Today’s vote is one step in a long legislative process," Tony Chesak said. "Our organization will continue to educate legislators and the public that authorizing Sunday sales will raise costs for small, family-owned businesses and consumers."

Sunday sales supporters say many Minnesotans drive across the border to other states and Canada on Sundays, costing state liquor stores profits and governments tax money. On Sundays, vehicles with Minnesota license plates often clog liquor store parking lots in places like Hudson, Wis., just across the river from the Twin Cities.

Opponents of Sunday sales mostly said they want the law to remain as it is because small stores would not experience a sales increase if they are open Sundays, but would have increased expenses for being open another day.