By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska alcohol regulators are planning to ask lawmakers for more power to restrict beer sales in areas such as Whiteclay, a village bordering South Dakota’s dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where alcoholism runs rampant.
The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission is expected to add an “alcohol impact zone” measure to its list of 2016 legislative proposals at a meeting next week, the commission’s chairman said Tuesday.
Whiteclay’s four beer stores sold the equivalent of 3.9 million cans of beer last year despite having only 14 residents. Most days, the sidewalks are filled with aggressive panhandlers and people passed out amid piles of garbage. Activists and some members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe blame the town for the reservation’s social problems, including high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome, but despite their efforts, little has changed in the last several decades.
“If it was me, I’d implement (the measure) tomorrow,” liquor commission chairman Bob Batt said. “But you need buy-in from the Legislature.”
The measure would allow the commission to designate specific areas as “alcohol impact zones” if a local government requests it, after which alcohol-selling stores could have their hours limited, certain products banned from sale or other restrictions.
A similar bill stalled in committee in 2012 and was opposed by lobbyists for the alcoholic beverage industry, who argued it would create an unfair advantage for businesses outside the zone. Lobbyists did not immediately return a message Tuesday.
The “alcohol impact zones” designation could also be used in problem areas in Omaha and Lincoln, said Hobert Rupe, the commission’s executive director.
“Is it going to be a silver bullet? No,” Rupe said. “But we believe that if the Legislature were to pass it, it would be a valuable and the commission could use to solve some of these societal problems.”
Sheridan County, which includes Whiteclay, may endorse the zoning idea next week at a meeting about public safety concerns, county Commissioner James Krotz said. The commission will also look at possible ways to address the alcohol problem, including a request that state officials ban Whiteclay’s single-can beer sales.
But Krotz said he was also concerned that closing the establishments would rid the area of its most affordable grocery stores, which are frequented by tribe members and residents of northern Sheridan County.
“There’s no easy solution to this,” he said, noting that he had hoped the tribe’s 2013 vote to legalize alcohol would have eased the problem. It was never put into effect.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he wants to address the problem by working with local law enforcement and community leaders who live and work in the area.
Bruce BonFleur, a Whiteclay resident and director of the Lakota Hope Ministry, met Tuesday with Attorney General Doug Peterson in hopes of adding more law enforcement.
“I am more optimistic than ever in my 13 years of involvement,” BonFleur said. “The Whiteclay that so many people know is about to change.”