Indian beer bill stalls; industry money flows

By Timothy Willams / April 11, 2012 / NEW YORK TIMES

Legislation in Nebraska that would curtail alcohol purchases to residents of a dry Indian reservation has stalled in a key committee whose members have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the alcohol industry, according to state records.

The bill, which would allow the authorities to establish “alcohol impact zones” in areas prone to alcohol-related crime, appears doomed, with the legislative session scheduled to end Wednesday.

At least seven of the eight senators on the General Affairs Committee have received contributions from Anheuser-Busch, which brews Hurricane High Gravity Lager, a high-alcohol malt liquor favored by the dozens of men and women who sleep outside beer shops in rural Whiteclay, Neb. The town sells four million cans of beer and malt liquor annually to residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, just north of the state line. The Oglala Sioux tribe on the reservation says alcohol has been at the root of almost all of its health and crime problems.

Committee members have received more than $21,000 during the past five years from alcohol companies and their lobbyists — who are among the members’ leading contributors — according to filings with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

Anheuser-Busch, which has a vigorous lobbying presence in the state, has donated nearly $120,000 to candidates in Nebraska since 2002, records show, including about $40,000 to Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, and more than $10,000 to Attorney General Jon Bruning, a Republican who is running for the Senate this year.

Members of the General Affairs Committee say campaign contributions from brewers and others have had no effect on their positions.

“People that believe in you and your policies donate money, and people who don’t believe in your policies will contribute to your opponent. It’s as simple as that,” said State Senator Tyson Larson, a committee member who has received contributions from Anheuser-Busch, the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association and the Associated Beverage Distributors of Nebraska, all of which have opposed the alcohol impact zone bill.

A spokesman for Anheuser-Busch said only that “information regarding our political contributions is public record.” The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association donated $800 to members of the General Affairs Committee last year, records show.

Kathy Siefken, the association’s executive director, said that while Whiteclay’s alcohol problems needed attention, she did not believe proposals to create impact zones would have been fair to the rest of Nebraska.

“It’s ugly there; something has to be done,” Ms. Siefken said. “But trying to control Whiteclay through legislation that affects the entire state doesn’t seem like it would be the right thing to do. That’s why those bills never make it out of committee. I wish someone with more knowledge than I have would fix what’s a glaring problem.”

Alcohol impact zones regulating store purchases have been established in recent years in various urban areas of the country, including Memphis and Seattle. The rules vary, but they generally limit store hours and prohibit the sale of single beers, and in some cases ban the purchase of high-alcohol brands. Hurricane High Gravity, for example, is among the products banned in the alcohol impact zones in Spokane, Wash., and Tacoma, Wash., and a similar product, Hurricane Ice Malt Liquor, also brewed by Anheuser-Busch, is prohibited in Seattle’s alcohol impact areas.

Alan Rathbun, licensing director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, said a study had shown that alcohol-related calls to the police fell after impact zones were set up, and that some liquor stores did more business because there was less inebriation on the street. “The most significant part is that people felt better about their neighborhoods,” Mr. Rathbun said.

Four Whiteclay beer stores are a few hundred yards outside the Pine Ridge reservation. Tribal leaders say alcohol is the cause of more than 90 percent of the reservation’s violent crime, and a quarter of children there are born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Life expectancy on the reservation is less than 50 years.

More than 90 percent of Pine Ridge’s residents live in poverty, according to federal statistics.

Last month, Bryan Blue Bird Jr., 51, an Army veteran, suffered burns over 25 percent of his body during a prescribed burn of a field in Whiteclay. Mr. Blue Bird, who remains hospitalized, had been sleeping in the field, where drinkers often spend the night.

In February, the Oglala Sioux filed a $500 million federal lawsuit against several large brewers, including Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing; local beer distributors; and the four Whiteclay beer shops, which sold the equivalent of 4.3 million 12-ounce cans of beer last year. The suit accuses the alcohol businesses of encouraging the illegal possession, transport and consumption of alcohol on the reservation, where alcohol is banned.

Whiteclay has a population of only about 10, but the four shops generated $360,000 in state and federal excise taxes last year and $414,000 in 2010, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

Efforts to reduce the stores’ hours — they are open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. — or to prohibit the sale of individual cans of beer have made little headway in the Legislature in recent years.

“It is each individual’s choice to go and buy that alcohol,” said Mr. Larson, the state senator. “We’re not here to protect people from themselves. The reservation needs to deal with the problem before blaming the State of Nebraska and the stores in Whiteclay.”

State Senator Russ Karpisek, chairman of the General Affairs Committee, said he did not pay attention to which groups donated to him, or how much they gave.

Mr. Karpisek, who has received about $4,000 from Anheuser-Busch, the Association of Beverage Distributors of Nebraska and other industry organizations, said the prospect that an alcohol impact zone in Whiteclay might nudge the town’s public drunkenness and petty crime elsewhere had effectively doomed the legislation.

“People are worried about pushing it down the road 35 to 40 miles,” Mr. Karpisek said. “Someone said, ‘Well, if you had a crack house across the street, wouldn’t you want to do something about it, even if it might pop up somewhere else the next day?’ I didn’t have a good answer for that.”

For now, Sheridan County installed a security camera to help the police with live surveillance of the remote Whiteclay area, but it could not afford a taping device, Sheriff Terry Robbins said.

State Senator LeRoy Louden, who has introduced much of the failed Whiteclay legislation during the past decade, chuckled when he heard about the sums that Anheuser-Busch and other industry interests had contributed to his colleagues.

Mr. Louden, who is serving his final year because of term limits, received what was probably his last contribution from Anheuser-Busch in 2005. Records show he has received nothing from the industry since 2008.

“They’ve got a pretty good hold on the committee,” he said about the alcohol lobby. “They make sure they like the people who sit on the committee.”

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