Nebraska bill targeting Whiteclay faces scrutiny

By Grant Schulte / ASSOCIATED PRESS / NATIVE AMERICAN TIMES

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – A proposal to allow for stricter alcohol rules in certain parts of Nebraska would give local governments the tools they need to fight public drunkenness, a state lawmaker said Monday.

But the bill faced skepticism from some state lawmakers and industry leaders, who questioned whether the measure unfairly singled out certain areas. Critics also said they doubted the measure would solve persistent alcohol abuse in problem areas.

Ellsworth Sen. LeRoy Louden told the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee he introduced the measure, LB 829, to help local governments fight alcohol abuse in Whiteclay, a town blamed for rampant alcohol abuse and bootlegging on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and specific neighborhoods in Omaha.

Louden said the bill allows local governments to control alcohol problems without imposing blanket restrictions.

“This type of business has to be scrutinized much more than the sale of beer and alcohol at a local grocery store frequented by the general public,” Louden said. The bill’s intention “is not to create a lot of impact zones throughout the state. It is a tool for counties to have but in reality will probably not be used all that often.”

Whiteclay is often blamed for widespread alcoholism and bootlegging on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned. The town has fewer than two dozen residents – yet its four offsite beer stores sold nearly 5 million cans in 2010, according to the state alcohol commission.

The bill would let local governments seek a state “alcohol impact zone” designation for specific problem neighborhoods. The state liquor commission could then limit the hours the alcohol sellers are open, ban the sale of certain products or restrict single-can sales. The bill would require a public hearing before the commission creates an alcohol impact zone.

Industry advocates said the bill would simply move the alcohol problem to other areas and punishes beer store owners who are running lawful businesses. Those who violate alcohol-sales laws could face license suspensions or revocations, said Kathy Siefkin, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association.

“Why should an existing license holder be punished for something when they haven’t done anything wrong?” Siefkin said. “They haven’t broken the law.”

But activists who have battled alcohol problems in Whiteclay said the industry has failed to stop illegal drinking around the town and smugglers who consume or resell it on the reservation.

Mark Vasina, the president of Nebraskans for Peace, who has produced a documentary about Whiteclay, said tribe members have recounted stories of beer sellers peddling alcohol for sex, pornography and food stamps. He acknowledged that the bill might not solve the alcohol problems but said it would “send a message” that Nebraska lawmakers are clamping down.

The Oglala band of the Lakota nation, known to outsiders as the Sioux, has struggled with alcoholism and poverty for generations. The debate over alcohol sales rose to national prominence in 1999, when two tribal members were murdered near Whiteclay. Their unsolved deaths inspired a yearly march from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay, and activists have occasionally staged blockades to block the flow of alcohol into the reservation.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe filed a $500 million federal lawsuit last week against some of the world’s largest beer makers, their distributors, and the four beer stores in Whiteclay.

Several states have joined forces with local governments in recent years to target problem areas, often in downtown urban areas and high-poverty neighborhoods.

In Washington state, the state Liquor Control Board has placed alcohol impact areas in several Seattle neighborhoods. The board restricts the sale of 29 types of beer and wine, with a focus on cheap, high-sugar brands. Local governments target specific neighborhoods and ask the Liquor Control Board to ban certain types of alcohol or limit the hours when customers can buy.

In 2010, the City Council in Memphis, Tenn., established an alcohol impact zone that banned single-beer sales downtown because of alleged ties between sales, aggressive behavior and panhandling.

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