LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A tiny Nebraska village known for beer sales near an Indian reservation is getting a fresh look from state lawmakers who are hunting for new ways to fight alcohol abuse, panhandling and violence in the region.
Senators haven't had much luck addressing the problems in Whiteclay, a town blamed for fueling alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Attempts to restrict sales in the village have failed, as did a 2005 effort to deputize Pine Ridge tribal officers in Nebraska. State aid approved for tribal alcohol treatment programs went unspent.
Now, lawmakers are moving forward with a new push to pinpoint why the problems persist and what, if anything, they can do.
Senators gave first-round approval Thursday, 42-0, to a bill that would create a legislative task force to examine the public health problems in Whiteclay. The town's four beer stores sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer in 2015, despite having only about a dozen residents.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said she introduced the bill because Whiteclay poses a "public health emergency" that has festered for too long. Public drunkenness has plagued Whiteclay for decades; the town draws panhandlers who beg for change and drink until they pass out on sidewalks.
"Our actions and our inactions in Nebraska are having devastating consequences on the people of Pine Ridge," Pansing Brooks said.
Pansing Brooks worked with Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe whose district includes Whiteclay. Brewer said addressing the problems have existed for so long that some people have become apathetic.
"There is literally an entire generation that has been lost, and another generation is about to be lost," Brewer said.
The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission is set to meet April 6 to discuss the stores' liquor licenses amid complaints that the village lacks adequate law enforcement. In January, the Sheridan County board, whose jurisdiction includes Whiteclay, recommended that the state renew the licenses. Board members have expressed concerns that closing the stores could lead to an increase in intoxicated drivers in Nebraska.
Separately, a new nonprofit group led by a local ministry is trying to raise money to try to buy out the beer stores.
The committee would include senators, public health officials and the executive director of the Commission on Indian Affairs. Members would report their preliminary findings to the full Legislature in December 2017 and again in December 2018. A final report would come due in December 2019, after which time the task force would dissolve.
Sen. John Lowe of Kearney said he believes the problems caused by the widespread drinking should trump the argument that the stores are operating legally.
"There's nothing more important in the state of Nebraska than small business, except for our people," he said.
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