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As far as bar hours go, the ball is in Pawlenty's court

By Ashley H. Grant

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- A proposal authorizing later bar hours in Minnesota could make last call, supporters said Wednesday.

"I think we're really close," said Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. "I'm confident that something will be worked out."

The bill, which passed the House and Senate on Monday, gained the conditional support of Gov. Tim Pawlenty earlier this month. He demanded that more money be earmarked for state troopers and local police.

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Supporters of the change say pushing back the state-mandated closing time by an hour to 2 a.m. would bring in $11 million a year in additional food and beverage taxes. Pawlenty wants 40 percent of that to be set aside for extra state troopers and 20 percent for grant programs aimed at local police. The rest would go into the state's general fund.

But the Department of Finance said the state can't bank on revenues that haven't yet come in, forcing all sides to search for another answer.

The administration's first suggestion was to require bars that wanted the extra hour to pay a $1,000 annual fee -- too much, said Greg Ortale of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association.

"That would be crushing to small businesses," he said. "It's got to be reasonable."

Since then, lawmakers and advocates have been working with the administration on a deal.

The latest proposal is a sliding fee scale based on gross sales for bars that want to stay open until 2 a.m. The scale would run from about $100 to $1,000, said Sen. Mark Ourada, R-Buffalo, who had just left a meeting with staff from the governor's office. The fee would likely go away if the sales tax revenues brought in as much as expected, he said.

"I'm still not thrilled with the whole surcharge idea in general," Ourada said, adding the new proposal was "more palatable. I think from that standpoint, it makes it a little more fair."

The legislation wouldn't force bars to stay open until 2 a.m. Rather, it would allow city councils to decide whether to allow bars to do so.

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Officials in several communities already have said they'll oppose such a move.

In Rochester, council member Jean McConnell said he would try to block any efforts to move closing time. He said a later closing time would lead to more intoxication and more accidents on local roads.

"I wish the Legislature hadn't messed with it," he said. "I don't see any reason we should go along with it."

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