Task force to address Whiteclay alcohol problems, ban on lobbyist-paid meals discussed

Feb. 2, 2017, 5:12 a.m. ·

Judi gaiashkibos of Nebraska's Commission on Indian Affairs testifies (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

Alcohol-fueled problems would be recognized as a public health emergency in the Indian reservation border town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, and lobbyists would be prohibited from supplying senators with meals in the Capitol, under proposals discussed in the Legislature.

Critics have long called for shutting down the four beer stores in Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of 10 people that sells the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the nearby and officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. But legislation introduced by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks takes a different approach. Her bill would create a Whiteclay Public Health Emergency Task Force to study the problems and create a plan to decrease alcohol-related health problems through prevention, treatment, and economic growth for that area of northwest Nebraska.

Pansing Brooks gave a list of problems she wants to address. "More than one in four babies born on the Pine Ridge Reservation suffer fetal alcohol syndrome. The alcoholism rate is as high as 80 percent. Infant mortality is three times the national average. And teen suicide is more than four times the national average. All of this while we pour millions of gallons of beer across our border. I believe we are contributing to these problems through alcohol sales on our border. We should do something to alleviate the problems and address this genocide of a very vulnerable people," she said.

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon supported the bill. Brewer, Nebraska’s first Native American legislator, is himself a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, headquartered on the Pine Ridge Reservation. "Sadly, I’ve had a lifetime of experience with this particular problem and am honored that Sen. Pansing Brooks invited me to testify in behalf of this bill. To me this bill is a long overdue starting point to a real long-term solution on this ongoing tragedy on alcohol in the Native American community in this part of western Nebraska. A comprehensive solution is definitely needed, and by that I mean a solution that has multiple parts. We have to have a solution that is as big as the problem," Brewer said.

Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, also supported the bill. gaiashkibos said the commission supports closing the beer stores, but that is not enough. "I do believe that the real bottom line issue here is not about the alcohol, but it’s about the hopelessness. It’s about the poverty. It’s about the lack of opportunity for the families and the children," she said.

No one testified against the bill, which was heard by the Legislature’s Executive Board. The Sheridan County Board of Commissioners has recommended the four Whiteclay beer stores should have their licenses renewed, and the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission has scheduled a hearing on that for March 7.

The Executive Board also held a hearing Thursday on a proposal by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, to prohibit lobbyists from providing senators with meals or beverages in the Capitol while the Legislature is in session. Chambers said he does not think anyone’s vote would be bought by a chicken dinner or a meatloaf sandwich. However, he added "The appearance of impropriety and undue influence may be fostered when members of the Legislature are provided and accept free meals and beverages in the state capitol building from lobbyists who are paid to influence the members of the Legislature to advance the interests of their clients by various and sundry official legislative acts."

Toward the end of each legislative session, when senators often work into the evening, there is a tradition of lobbyists paying for food that the senators can eat in a lounge across the hallway from the legislative chamber. Supporting Chambers proposed ban, Stephanie Meyer of Lincoln suggested senators could do as she does and pack a meal in a portable cooler.

Jim Otto, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Retail Federation who organizes the late-in-the-session meals, said that in 2015, 54 lobbying firms contributed a total of just over $10,000 to feed 48 senators, not including Chambers, which worked out to less than $4 per senator per firm.

Otto said he had been asked to organize the effort by a previous legislative speaker, and had no position on whether it should continue or not. "I totally understand and the lobby totally understands and sees the point of Sen. Chambers’ resolution. And then I also would say that if you do move forward and decide on this, I would have less work to do. So I wouldn’t object to that," he said.

The Executive Board took no immediate action on either the Whiteclay or the lobbyist meals proposal.

In debate before the full Legislature Thursday, senators continued to disagree over budget cuts proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts. When state revenues began falling behind projections last year, Ricketts began restricting the flow of funds that had been appropriated by the Legislature to state agencies.

Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said that was striking at the heart of the Legislature’s powers. "The power of the Legislature lies with the power to control the purse strings. Period. That’s how we get our power. That’s how it’s written in the constitution. We appropriate the money. The governor spends the money. He hands it out," Harr said. However, in this case, he added "We appropriated the money. He unilaterally held the money back. Period. End of discussion."

Ricketts argues that state law gives him the ability to delay spending, but not cut it, unless the Legislature approves, which is what he’s now asking senators to do. Sen. Robert Hilkeman of Omaha defended the governor’s actions. "The revenues are lower; they are projected to be lower; and therefore the governor has done a responsible thing in cutting back. They saw this coming," Hilkemann said. "And so what he’s saying to us now is that ‘Let’s take a little bit from our present budget so that next year we don’t have to take all of it and cut many more programs.’ We’ve got to get ahead of it."

For the third day in a row, the Legislature adjourned without voting on the budget. However, Friday morning, the unofficial eight hours that in recent years was the minimum for first round debate before a cloture motion will be reached. After that, someone could file a cloture motion, which, if two-thirds of the senators supported it, would force a vote on the budget bill.