Bill affecting Whiteclay gets mixed response

Published February 8, 2005

Everyone wants to fix problems related to selling alcohol to American Indians in the tiny border town of Whiteclay, a Nebraska state senator said Monday.

The question, Omaha Sen. Mike Friend said, is whether the bill supported by numerous anti-alcohol groups and activists trying to shut down alcohol sales in Whiteclay is the answer.

“I don’t see this as a solution to Whiteclay,” said Kathy Siefken, director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association.

She and others opposed the bill before the General Affairs Committee that would give the state Liquor Commission more leeway in deciding whether to grant or renew liquor licenses.

The proposal spells out in state law that the liquor commission is to consider the impact issuing more liquor licenses would have on a community and whether additional law violations were likely.

It also gives the commission more power to deny issuing a license by changing wording in the law related to requirements that must be met before a license is granted. Instead of requiring a license to be issued when the requirements are met, it leaves issuance at the discretion of the commission.

That wiggle room would help the commission deny licenses in borderline cases where there are feelings, backed up by evidence, that allowing the applicant to sell alcohol would be a bad idea, said liquor commission director Hobert Rupe.

Not only could it come into play in Whiteclay, it also would be a factor in any community where adding an alcohol seller could pose a problem, he said.

In questions she asked Rupe, Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine picked up on the concerns expressed by opponents, which also included the restaurant and convenience store groups.

“How much direction do you want the commission to have?” she asked. “If people meet the requirements spelled out in the law, they should have a license.”

Fischer and other committee members expressed concern during a discussion of the bill after the hearing in executive session. The committee took no action.

The measure (LB530) drew support from longtime activists looking to stop alcohol sales in Whiteclay, which is located just across the border from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where alcohol is banned. Also supporting it were anti-alcohol groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, PRIDE Omaha, and Project Extra Mile.

The time has come for Nebraska to do something about Whiteclay, where three beer stores sell thousands of cans of beer daily to residents of the reservation, the committee was told.

“The citizens of Pine Ridge suffer greatly for our inaction,” said Diane Riibe, director of Project Extra Mile.

No one knows how to deal with Whiteclay, but the bill is a good start, said Byron Peterson with Nebraskans for Peace.

“This is almost like a swamp,” he said. “We don’t know how to get ourselves out of it. We don’t know how to deal with it. It just goes on and on and on.”

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