Nebraska lawmakers mull alcohol problems in Whiteclay

By Grant Schulte
Lincoln, Nebraska (AP) October 2011

Nebraska lawmakers should join forces with local governments to target the widespread alcohol problems in the Panhandle town of Whiteclay and parts of Omaha, a top state alcohol official said.

Nebraska Liquor Control Commission director Hobert Rupe encouraged lawmakers consider an “alcohol impact zone” program when they convene in January. Such programs allow local governments to limit the types of alcohol sold in troubled areas or, in other cases, ask the state to impose restrictions.

The hearing before the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee focused largely on Whiteclay, a town blamed for rampant alcohol abuse and bootlegging on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The town, which has fewer than two dozen residents, borders Pine Ridge and sits two miles south of the reservation’s main village.

Ellsworth Sen. LeRoy Louden suggested restrictions on the hours when beer sales are allowed. The stores open at 8 a.m. on weekdays, a time many Whiteclay regulars refer to as “roll call.”

Louden said forbidding alcohol sales until noon could limit the abuse without killing the businesses. He said he has discussed the idea with Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins.

Louden, who represents 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 in 2004 died after a public outcry.

“There isn’t much we can do” about the problems, Louden said. “But perhaps we can do something about what we sell them, how much we sell them, and go from there.”

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

The Washington 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.

Hobert said the local-state partnership could apply to problem areas in Omaha, where homeless people and youths drink from cheap, small bottles.

A few lawmakers on the panel questioned rules that they said could favor one product over another.

“You’re essentially going to pick what type of beer and liquor gets to be sold in these stores,” said Sen. Tyson Larson, of O’Neill. “So, essentially, the state gets to pick the winners and losers of the alcohol industry?”

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.