Bar patrons, staff praise new state 2 a.m. closing law

Bars that stay open until 2 a.m. will pay fees annually, based on their volume of alcohol sales, to fight drunk driving with 50 additional state troopers.

Nathan Hall

University-area bar patrons and employees are enthused by Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s approval of a bill allowing Minnesota bars to serve alcohol until 2 a.m.

“We’re finally equal with (Wisconsin) on something,” said Thaddeus Dehn, an Institute of Technology junior and Facilities Management employee. “I think this will allow us to compete better against other cities for conference bids, and those taxes will help the budget.”

Most states, including Iowa, Wisconsin and South Dakota, allow bars to serve until at least 2 a.m.

Under the new law, 2 a.m. would become the default closing time for Minnesota’s 11,000-plus bars beginning Aug. 1 unless a city council specifically votes to retain the current 1 a.m. policy. Officials in several predominantly suburban enclaves such as Rochester, Minn. – fearing increased instances of drunk driving – have already vowed to do just that.

“I think people will freak out for a couple of weeks, but that’ll be about it,” said Aaron Ollswang, University liberal arts senior and Stub & Herbs bartender. “Besides, I’ll make more money.”

The deal, which took weeks of negotiations among liquor industry advocates, legislators and the governor, will also put 50 more state troopers on the road.

The state will pay for the law enforcement salaries through yearly permits for bars choosing to sign up for the privilege of an extra hour of business.

Some of the fee money will be used with new federal dollars allocated in the Transportation Equity Act for the liquor control enforcement.

“They will be spent on efforts that relate very directly to the impact of more time for drinking,” Pawlenty said in defending the fees’ implementation.

The sliding-scale fees range from $200 to $600 a year, depending on the volume of liquor dispensed. The original proposal of a flat $1,000 surcharge was quickly squashed after vigorous complaints from small-business owners.

“That permit will probably pay for itself in one night,” said Jay Swansson, a door attendant at Stub & Herbs in Stadium Village. “I went to school in Indiana where everything closes at 3 a.m., and that seemed too late to be staying out if you have class. But 1 a.m. here seems too early Ö I think 2 a.m. is reasonable.”

Proponents of the new measure publicly estimate at least $2.5 million in new revenue for the cash-strapped general fund over the next two years. Pawlenty said he promised that if tax revenue were covering the troopers’ tab by 2005, the fee would be phased out.

Pawlenty originally opposed a similar bill as a legislator. In a press conference, Pawlenty said the change of heart stemmed from six University studies that looked at the effects of later bar closing hours. Three found no changes, two found problems eventually being created and one found a sharp increase in problems.

The studies were conducted in part by the alcohol epidemiology program, a research program affiliated with the University’s School of Public Health.

Vocal critics of the law include the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who criticized the deal for extending bar hours while simultaneously significantly reducing its police force.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.