Bill would let Nebraska target alcohol problem areas

By Grant Schulte / ASSOCIATED PRESS / NATIVE AMERICAN TIMES

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Advocates fighting alcohol problems in Omaha and the tiny Panhandle town of Whiteclay believe a bill in the Legislature would help curb public drunkenness in both areas, but lobbyists for the alcoholic beverage industry said Tuesday that the proposal was too broad.

Ellsworth Sen. LeRoy Louden said 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.

But a lobbyist for the Nebraska Licensed Beverage Association, Jim Moylan, said the bill would hand too much power to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission and give some bars and liquor stores an unfair advantage over others.

Commission director Hobert Rupe encouraged lawmakers in September to consider an “alcohol impact zone” bill during the legislative session that began last week. The hearing at the time focused largely on Whiteclay, which borders Pine Ridge and sits two miles south of the reservation’s main village.

The town has fewer than two dozen residents – yet its four off-site beer stores sold nearly 5 million cans in 2010, according to commission estimates.

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 impose other restrictions. The bill would require a public hearing before the commission creates an alcohol impact zone.

Activists who have pushed to limit beer sales in Whiteclay said they supported the measure but questioned language that requires support from local authorities.

“If the local government doesn’t want to recognize a problem, there isn’t any mechanism within this bill for the commission to designate an alcohol impact zone,” said Mark Vasina, president of the group Nebraskans for Peace.

“Of course, that allows local control on this issue. But if they view places like Whiteclay as not a problem, but an issue that’s been hyped up by outside agitators, it doesn’t leave much hope that this legislation would have an impact,” he said.

Lobbyists for the alcoholic beverage industry said the measure was too broad, and vowed to fight it.

“If you limit what a person can sell inside one of these zones, what kind of competitive advantage does that create for someone right outside the zone?” asked Moylan, the Nebraska Licensed Beverage Association lobbyist.

Louden, the lawmaker sponsoring the legislation, has said forbidding alcohol sales until noon in Whiteclay might limit the abuse. The Whiteclay stores have traditionally opened on weekdays at 8 a.m., a time many Whiteclay regulars refer to as “roll call.”

Louden, who lives near the Whiteclay area, said the desolate border town contributes to the alcohol problem but is not solely to blame. The Connecticut-sized reservation has struggled with alcoholism and poverty for generations, despite an alcohol ban in place since 1832. Pine Ridge legalized alcohol in 1970 but restored the ban two months later, and an attempt to legalize it in 2004 died after a public outcry.

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, for example, 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.

Last year, 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.

In Nebraska, Hobert said the local-state partnership could apply to problem areas in Omaha, where homeless people and youths drink from cheap, small bottles. Hobert said the types of beers and wines targeted in other states are aimed at low-income and homeless people, and account for many of the problems.

“If a manufacturer is basing their entire market share on the type of areas we’re dealing with – the type of products – I’m not going to feel very much sympathy for them,” he said.

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