- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - A ban on Sunday liquor sales that has been Minnesota law for more than eight decades could face a more aggressive challenge than usual this year due to an influx of new legislators and a push by one of the state’s most powerful politicians.

It’s a perennial topic at the Legislature, where advocates’ hopes of repealing the Sunday sales ban are routinely crushed by wide margins, keeping Minnesota as one of just 12 states that ban liquor stores from opening on Sundays. Last year, the House voted down a repeal attempt on a 70-56 vote.

But an election that shifted control of the Legislature also brought in nearly four dozen new lawmakers, and a majority of those who left the Capitol through retirement or defeat had voted to uphold the ban. And the repeal effort has a louder, more powerful champion than ever before: Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, once a Sunday sales opponent who this year co-authored a bill and has boldly predicted that the House would finally vote to repeal the ban in 2017.

“It’s a populist issue. I think it’s something people want, and there’s not a really good reason not to do it,” he said Tuesday. “I feel like it’s something we can do that people will say, ‘See, government is listening to us.’”

Legislation made its first steps in a House committee Tuesday and passed on a 15-4 vote, including four representatives voting yes who helped uphold the ban last year. As it heads for a full vote on the House floor, half of the 20 newcomers contacted by The Associated Press said they’d likely support the repeal effort, while another seven remained undecided. Just three said they were leaning toward upholding the ban.

“The state should not be in the business of dictating when your doors are open,” said Sen. Mark Koran, a freshman Republican from North Branch and steadfast proponent of allowing Sunday sales.

Koran’s argument has echoed around the Capitol for a decade or more but gained little traction among lawmakers. Even Tuesday’s hearing of a bill was a sign of progress for advocates - for years, failing votes have been contained to parliamentary maneuvers that forced hurried votes on the House and Senate floors.

Liquor industry officials and unions have fought against the change, arguing that that the state’s current setup protects smaller, family-operated stores who wouldn’t see more revenue from an extra day of business, just more expenses. Democratic Sen. Nick Frentz said that’s what businesses in his Mankato-area district have told him.

Allowing Sunday liquor sales faces tougher odds in Senate, where resistance may have only grown since it last shot down a repeal attempt 35-28 in 2015. Several House Democrats with a record of voting to uphold the ban moved up to the Senate this year.

Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said it’s no “slam dunk,” but he’s optimistic he can get enough senators on board to legalize Sunday sales. He’s encouraged by cities such as Lakeville, which runs its local liquor stores, and has resisted a repeal, recently moving to support the effort.

“When your cities say ‘I want this,’ it’s very hard to say no,” Osmek said.

Gov. Mark Dayton said Tuesday he won’t join the push for a repeal, but vowed he wouldn’t veto a bill if it makes it to his desk.

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