Monday, April 23, 2012

Nebraska Legislature takes up, then drops, Indian alcohol issue

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published this update on a bill in the Nebraska legislature that would "allow the authorities to establish 'alcohol impact zones' in areas prone to alcohol-related crime."  It appears that the bill is dead, and the New York Times suggests that campaign contributions from alcohol interests to the members of the Nebraska General Affairs Committee play a significant role in killing it.  Alcohol companies and their lobbyists are among the largest donors to members of the Committee, having donated more than $21,000 to their campaigns over five years.  Anheuser-Busch alone has donated to the campaigns of seven of the eight Committee members, and it has donated more than $120,000 to the campaigns of Nebraska officials since 2002.

I wrote this blog post a few weeks ago about Whiteclay, Nebraska, the most obvious candidate for "alcohol impact zone" status.  My post relies heavily on this New York Times story about a lawsuit the Oglala Sioux have filed against beer distributors and beer sellers in Whiteclay.  The Sioux argue that the sale of excessive amounts of beer--especially high-alcohol beer--in Whiteclay is causing problems on their reservation, which is a "dry," or alcohol-prohibition area.  Although Whiteclay has fewer than a dozen residents, four stores there sell alcohol, and they generated $360,000 in state and federal excise taxes in 2011, down from $414,000 in 2010.

The alcohol impact zones that the Committee has been considering have been used in various cities, including Memphis and Seattle, to limit store hours and prohibit the sale of single beers.  They may also ban the purchase of high-alcohol products like Hurricane High Gravity.

A study in Washington state showed that the impact zones actually increased sales at some liquor stores because of the drop in inebriation on the streets.  Also, alcohol-related calls to the police fell after the impact zones were established.  "The most significant part is that people felt better about their neighborhoods," according to an official in Washington state.  As for the first outcome, it might not be true of Whiteclay, of course, since few people other than the Oglala Sioux are around to buy the alcohol.  On the other hand, the few folks resident in Whiteclay, along with the Sioux, would presumably feel better about their neighborhood.

One of the state senators, Russ Karpisek, who accepts contributions from alcohol interests acknowledged the state's interests in effectively containing the problem in Whiteclay rather than "pushing it down the road 35-40 miles."

The Sheridan County Sheriff, Terry Robbins, whose office has primary responsibility for law enforcement in Whiteclay, said his office had "installed a security camera to help the police with live surveillance of the remote Whiteclay area, but it could not afford a taping device."

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