Nebraska officials’ trip to Whiteclay spurs legislative study

Published Wednesday September 23, 2009

A trip to Whiteclay in March by two state senators, the attorney general and a state liquor control commissioner has led to hearings on whether more should be done to address alcohol sales and use there.

Two hearings to be conducted by the Legislature’s judiciary and general affairs committees will constitute a legislative study on the issue.

The first will begin Friday at 1:30 p.m. at the state Capitol. The second will be in Rushville in November.

“The problem didn’t occur overnight,” said Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, who worked on a resolution that called for the study.

“We’re not going to fix it overnight. Hopefully, we can do something.”

Whiteclay, population 14, rests on the Nebraska border near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where alcohol is barred but alcoholism is rampant.

Four stores in Whiteclay sell about 4 million cans of alcohol a year, mostly to Natives from the reservation.

Advocates have argued for change in Whiteclay, and their efforts led to a previous legislative study, as well as temporary efforts to increase Nebraska State Patrol enforcement in Whiteclay.

Karpisek said he was saddened by what he saw March 6 while visiting Whiteclay with Attorney General Jon Bruning, Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln and state Liquor Control Commissioner Robert Batt.

While Karpisek doesn’t plan to introduce legislation yet, he said he’ll be open to ideas presented at the hearings.

“I just think that we need to put some things in place for those people,” he said.

Mark Vasina, director and producer of “The Battle for Whiteclay,” a film about alcohol sales in the town, said he hopes the study will provide a body of facts that can be used to craft solutions.

“I have great confidence … that the study is not going to attempt to whitewash the issue or anything like that,” he said. “It’s not clear what if any legislation would come out of the study.”

Judi Morgan gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, is part of a working group that has been meeting to discuss the issue.

She said she suggested to the group that state taxes collected at Whiteclay be used for alcohol treatment and job creation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

She said it is important that any legislation crafted as a result of the study benefit those affected by alcohol sales.

“If everybody wants to do something bad enough, it can be done,” she said. “It’s a matter of wanting to do the right thing here.”

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