Lawmakers trim back Whiteclay plan

Published Tuesday March 30, 2010

LINCOLN (AP) Early momentum toward using a substantial chunk of Nebraska tax money to try to ease alcohol-related problems in and near Whiteclay, Neb., mostly fizzled out Monday.

Citing a lack of clear strategy and participation from other government entities, including the State of South Dakota, Nebraska lawmakers backed off plans to put $100,000 in a fund to help address problems in and near the village of 14. The Legislature instead gave second-round approval to allocating $25,000 and hiring a grant writer, which would cost roughly $40,000 more.

Four stores in Whiteclay sell a total of about 4 million cans of beer annually, mostly to members of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian reservation, which is dry and within walking distance of Whiteclay. The reservation has one of the country’s highest alcoholism-related mortality rates.

“We need to separate the real needs from the feel-good,” said Sen. Dennis Utter of Hastings, who proposed that no money be put in the Whiteclay fund. “One hundred thousand dollars won’t make a dent in the alcohol problem in Whiteclay,” he said later.

An earlier proposal had called for allocating $250,000 to the Whiteclay fund and hiring a grant writer. That proposal had been whittled down to $100,000 before being cut again Monday.

The state’s budget problems have helped erode support for spending money on Whiteclay.

“This is not the time we should be doing this,” said Sen. Lavon Heidemann of Elk Creek, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Another lawmaker countered that there apparently has never been a good time, pointing out that there never has been legislative action aimed at addressing the problems in Whiteclay.

“We have a chance to make a difference,” said Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff, who wanted $100,000 set aside. He and others believed that might be enough to attract grant money that could make a difference. The money could have been used to start an alcohol detoxification center near Whiteclay, which will be harder to do with less money.

“We have never … dealt with the issue,” Harms said. “We just keep pushing it aside. … It’s always South Dakota’s problem. It’s our problem.”

Nebraska state senators have said their South Dakota counterparts have told them that they’re interested in cooperating to address alcoholism-related problems but can’t help this year.

Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment pm Monday. During a legislative hearing in December, she told lawmakers that the tribe wanted to work with them and that “now is the time to come together. … We need to stop pointing fingers.”

At the time, Two Bulls said the tribe supported an additional tax on beer sold in Whiteclay, with revenues going toward a detox center and, possibly, a homeless shelter. That idea, and another presented in January to use existing sales tax revenue from beer sales, fell flat earlier in the legislative session.

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