State seeks Whiteclay solution

Published Saturday September 26, 2009

LINCOLN — The state has a moral obligation to restrict or end alcohol sales in the border town of Whiteclay.

That was the message Friday from activists calling for a crackdown on liquor outlets in the town.

Those testifying criticized the four Whiteclay businesses that sell 3.2 million cans of beer each year — mostly to residents of the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol-related problems and poverty are rampant.

“This is beyond the pale. This is predatory. There’s no excuse,” said Anthony Hendrickson, dean of Creighton University’s College of Business.

Even advocates of the free enterprise system, Hendrickson said, can agree that liquor sales that contribute to such suffering are irresponsible.

Hendrickson was among more than a dozen people who testified before a joint hearing of the General Affairs and Judiciary Committees.

The panels are studying how to reduce the high rates of alcoholism, violence and fetal-alcohol syndrome that plague the reservation just across the border from Whiteclay.

State Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, who visited the town earlier this year, said he wants to explore funneling some of the $122,000 a year in state liquor excise taxes generated in Whiteclay to alcohol rehabilitation programs.

Karpisek disagreed with Hendrickson and others who urged lawmakers to either shut down the liquor stores or restrict them from selling large quantities of beer.

Activists also proposed banning sales of “high gravity” malt liquor that is popular in Whiteclay.

“You’re just nipping at the edges,” said Karpisek, chairman of General Affairs.

Bob Batt of Omaha, a member of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, did not testify at the hearing.

Batt said outside the hearing room that Whiteclay liquor establishments are operating legally.

He said the answer is a massive social program to halt demand for alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which he described as “one of the worst places” he’d ever seen.

A group of Omaha Creighton Prep students, who formed a “Solidarity Club” earlier this year to address the Whiteclay issue, said Friday they’ve collected more than 700 signatures on an Internet petition in support of their efforts.

In the next few weeks, the students said, they plan to present a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to overturn a 1904 order and restore a 50-square-mile “buffer zone” of no alcohol sales along the Nebraska border.

That would shut down the Whiteclay liquor outlets. But some officials say liquor outlets would simply move farther down the road, and that could prompt more alcohol-related traffic accidents.

Karpisek said restoring the buffer zone is “a great idea.”

“We need some federal help. We need some South Dakota help, too,” he said.

Others at the hearing said the Oglala Sioux Tribal Police and other South Dakota agencies need to step up enforcement against alcohol possession on the reservation and bootleggers who sell alcohol out of the trunks of their cars.

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