Two bills take aim at problems in Whiteclay

Published Wednesday January 20, 2010

Weary of massive alcohol sales in the small border town of Whiteclay, two state senators introduced bills Wednesday aimed at alleviating social and health ills.

State senators Russ Karpisek of Wilber and LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth introduced bills that would fund substance abuse treatment, economic development, health care and law enforcement for Native people.

“This isn’t something that’s going to cure it,” Louden said of his bill, LB1002. “This is going to set up some revenue to alleviate some problems. The problem is the alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

Long a focus of media and activist scrutiny, Whiteclay is home to four beer stores that sold the equivalent of more than 4.2 million 12-ounce cans of beer in 2008 alone.

Activists and state senators have long called for closing down the stores, which mostly sell to Oglala Sioux from the nearby dry Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota.

Neither of the bills introduced Wednesday call for closing down beer stores in Whiteclay.

Louden’s bill would set aside state sales tax revenue generated from alcohol sales in Whiteclay and nearby towns for economic development, health care and law enforcement in the town. The revenue would be set aside annually and would come from retail beer sales within a 30-mile radius of Whiteclay.

That would put the towns of Chadron, Hay Springs, Rushville and Gordon within the area affected by the bill, Louden said. Agencies in those towns would be eligible to apply for the funding.

The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission would decide who received the money. Louden said the Legislative Fiscal Office was working to determine the amount that likely would be set aside each year.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be a huge amount of money,” he said.

Karpisek’s bill, LB1005, would set aside $250,000 to create a substance abuse treatment grant program to be administered by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Nebraska tribally-operated clinics, Native health organizations and other public health groups could apply for the money, which would require a local match. Those groups would need to have a substantial Native clientele.

Priority would be given to areas with the greatest incidence of alcohol and controlled substance abuse.

While the bill would require a significant investment by legislators at a time when they are hesitant to approve any new spending, Karpisek is confident other bills he has introduced would create enough revenue to offset the bill’s cost.

His other bills would increase state liquor license fees and beer shipping fees.

“In my mind, this is a big enough issue that we haven’t addressed, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “If this isn’t the right way to do it, we have a lot of other ideas that were given to us.”

Jane Morgan, director of the North East Panhandle Substance Abuse Center in Gordon, would welcome a substance abuse grant program. With nine beds for treatment and detox clients, NEPSAC typically has a waiting list of 20 people and wants to add five beds, she said.

The agency’s clients are about 80 percent Native, including many from Pine Ridge.

“It would help meet needs we would have for five more beds,” Morgan said.

Still, she isn’t getting her hopes up.

“I know how tough it’s going to be for senators to set aside a pot of money at a time when everybody wants money from them.”

Readers’ Comments (Lincoln Journal Star)

John Andrews said on January 21, 2010, 1:00 pm:

I’m all for revitalizing Whiteclay, but I don’t think singling out alcohol retailers in the area for additional taxes is the way to go. I just don’t see the fairness in additional taxes. It also sets a troubling precedent. Who else does the state want to single out for special taxes to solve a local problem? Things could get messy. I would ask the legislature to ensure there are laws to penalize alcohol retailers for selling to bootleggers with the option of shutting down the business if they continue to sell to bootleggers. That, of course, is only one part of what should be a comprehensive plan to address the issue.

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