Oft-failed legislation has decent chance of passing this year
Greg Ortale has been lobbying Minnesota state legislators since 1991 for a law to allow Downtown bars an extra hour. This year the President and CEO of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitor Association (GMCVA) thinks it actually stands a chance.
House File No. 1493, sponsored by Dan Dorman, an Albert Lea Republican, would allow bars around the state to serve until 2 a.m. It passed easily out of the House Regulated Industries Committee on a voice vote. It now moves on to the House Rules Committee for further consideration. A similar bill passed a Senate committee earlier this month.
The legislation has a history of failure. In 1993, it made it as far as the Senate floor but lost by a few votes. Only Minneapolis bars were included in that bill.
Last year a bill was proposed to allow hotels statewide to serve until 2 a.m. That failed in part because the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association opposed it. The group\'s members include non-hotel bars. This time, because all bars in the state are included, the group supports the legislation.
A boost for business, taxes
According to Ortale, Minnesota is one of only five states in the nation that doesn\'t have the later bar closing hours. He called a 1 a.m. closing detrimental to the city\'s convention business.
\"If you are trying to book a convention, and the price and the venue is essentially the same, something as small as bar closings can tilt a convention away from Minneapolis,\" said Ortale.
\"Face time outside the exhibit booth is very important to exhibitors,\" he added. \"And with many events going on well into the night, that limits the time people can spend with each other. The opportunity to sit in a lounge and have a drink is important for doing business.\"
This is the first time Dorman has been involved. Enlisting a Republican house member in a legislative body that has a 30-vote Republican majority may help.
\"If it boosts tourism for the state, that is good for everyone, not just Minneapolis,\" Dorman said. \"Especially if it puts tax dollars in the state coffers.\"
State Rep. Jean Wagenius, a south Minneapolis DFLer, said lobbyists from industries such as alcohol and gambling are having greater success at the legislature this year than they have in the past. She attributed the difference to a change in attitude by the Republican Party who used to oppose the laws but no longer does.
The plan also has the virtue of raising revenues without raising tax rates, a key Republican campaign promise. Currently, the GMVCA is a $400 million-a-year business, its officials say. The state gets 6.5 percent, or about $25 million, from conventions, and the city gets over 3 percent, or about $13 million per year.
However, Dorman warned, the issue is similar to gun control and tobacco - the mere mention of it evokes a knee-jerk reaction in some people, making them less likely to listen.
At the public hearings, he heard concerns about teen access to alcohol, the recent University of Minnesota riots and tragic stories about loved ones killed in crashes with drunk drivers. While he said the concerns are serious, they have nothing to do with bar closing times. He is working with supporters to figure out the best strategy to get it signed into law. It may be attached to another bill or proposed by itself.
Despite the fact that it can help Minneapolis, Wagenius said that she does not support legislation extending bar hours until drunk driving\'s repercussions are addressed.
According to Wagenius, over 600 people died on Minnesota roads in 2002, 89 more than the year before. Forty percent of the deaths were alcohol-related. In Europe, she said, the number is 20 percent.
\"We in Minnesota have to confront the results of drunk driving,\" she said. \"Deaths on the road are greatest during the late night hours. Back when Minneapolis had 100 murders, we were dubbed Murderapolis. But this issue is still under the radar screen.\"
Cops and city pols in favor
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak supports late bar closings.
\"There have been many times over the years when I have been out on the town and wondered why my friends and I had to leave a bar before we were ready,\" said Rybak. \"But since I became mayor there\'s been another important reason and that is public safety.\"
Rybak visited Downtown\'s 1st Police Precinct a few months ago, sat in on a roll call and asked what he could do to help cops keep Downtown safe. He said their response surprised him: \"Try to get the bars to close later.\"
Rybak said that at 1 a.m., as many as 25,000 people leave Downtown nightspots at once. Extending bar hours would expand the time that people have to filter out the bars so as not to have a mad 1 a.m. rush that fills the sidewalks so that people spill into the street.
Chief Robert Olson has opposed the 2 a.m. bar-closing legislation because in the past it was exclusive to Minneapolis.
\"I was always opposed to that because it takes your suburban drunks and has them driving Downtown to get drunker,\" said Olson.
\"If the whole state is going to close at 2 a.m., then that is no longer an issue. The impact for us is that we are going to have to readjust our schedules Downtown accordingly because everything that we do now is predicated on the 1 a.m. closing time.\"
Olson believes it remains to be seen whether it will help filter out the bar crowd in a more orderly fashion.
What would bars do?
Given the opportunity, would Downtown bars actually stay open until 2 a.m. every night?
\"I think you have to take a little bit of a wait and see about staying open so late,\" said Kieran Folliard, who owns The Local, 931 Nicollet Mall, and Kieran\'s Irish Pub, 330 2nd Ave. S.
\"During the summer months we certainly would, and I imagine that during the winter you might stay open on the weekends. But, on a frigid, snowy Sunday night in January unless there is some event in town, I doubt we would stay open until 2 a.m. But it is terrific to know that we would have that option.\"
Dorman said since the bill has gone down many times in the past it is no sure thing. \"I think it is still going to have a very tough fight.\"