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Time to let Minnesotans buy beer, wine, and (some) liquor at grocery stores?

Imagine if those Target refrigerators were stocked with beer. Someday, Minnesotan, they just might be.

Imagine if those Target refrigerators were stocked with beer. Someday, Minnesotan, they just might be. Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

We Americans are a divided people. 

Especially when it comes to who gets to buy booze at grocery stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. 

Such laws are set state-by-state, leading to a patchwork regulatory scheme that swings wildly as one crosses borders. Consider Minnesota's neighbor states: North Dakota does not allow alcohol sales at grocery stores; South Dakota and Iowa do; Wisconsin leaves it up to local governments to decide. The majority of states have legal grocery store liquor sales of some kind.

With the curious, fabulous exception of Sentyrz Market in northeast Minneapolis, Minnesota allows for the sale of 3.2 beer (insert Monty Python joke), and nothing else. That might be about to change.

Well, someday. Maybe. 

A bill that would allow beer, wine, and "Minnesota-distilled spirits" to be sold at "food retailer" stores in Minnesota will get an "informational hearing" on Wednesday, as flagged by Minnesota Public Radio's Briana Bierschbach. The "informational" nature means shoppers shouldn't get their hopes up this year. Committee deadlines passed long ago, and Minnesota's (already highly productive) 2018 legislative session ends in a week.

But next year? Sure, yeah. Maybe.

The bill takes an inclusive view of the term "food retailer,"  which it says means "large and midscale establishments such as supermarkets and grocery stores, but may also include small-scale establishments such as corner stores or convenience stores."

A qualifying store would sell bread and baked goods, meat and fish, produce, dairy products, plus "dried, canned and other packaged groceries." The repeated use of the word "and" instead of "or" implies a corner store would have to have at least some of each of those items to meet the standard. 

The bill's two chief authors are Republicans -- Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia) and Sen. Karin Housley (R-St. Marys Point), author and presumptive GOP U.S. Senate candidate -- though the Senate version has a couple Democratic co-authors.

When, in 2016, Minnesota finally dropped its prohibition on Sunday sales at liquor stores, support and opposition did not fall along party lines, and made for some interesting bipartisan bedfellows. 

Grocery store sales are hardly a new debate in Minnesota -- in 2001, a bill to allow wine sales had gained some momentum before its author suddenly dropped the issue -- but the idea hasn't received serious consideration in years. Wednesday's hearing looks like it might next year.

One recent case study occurred in Colorado, where a law signed in 2016 will see beer hitting grocery store shelves in 2019; liquor stores there will maintain a monopoly on wine and hard liquor until 2037.

In analyzing that proposal, an economist at the University of Denver said the move would be a boon to Colorado's craft brewery industry, with annual sales at grocery stores projected to exceed $125 million.

That economist also cast doubt on the perceived threat to liquor stores, noting that they "prosper close to grocery stores in other states" that allow liquor sales. He points to the example of Seattle, where liquor store sales per capita were actually higher than in Denver, despite consumers having the grocery store option. 

If that math holds up here, letting Minnesotans purchase liquor at Target, Costco, or the co-op won't mean we simply take our booze business elsewhere. It might mean we buy more. 

Or maybe it won't matter. One recent review ranked states by alcohol-related problems. Minnesota came in 10th. Ranking second-worst was Wisconsin, which allows grocery store liquor sales. Finishing first? North Dakota, which doesn't.