LINCOLN — Twenty-five years ago, if you wanted a six-pack of beer at a Sunday NFL football gathering in Nebraska's second-largest city, you needed to drive outside of town to buy it.
No alcohol was sold in Lincoln on Sundays until 1988.
Fast-forward to today.
Lincolnites, thanks to a new state law, can now buy hard liquor, wine and beer at convenience stores, supermarkets and other outlets beginning at 6 a.m. on Sundays.
Soon they may be able to walk outside a tavern carrying a drink, thanks to another new law that allows “entertainment zones” amid a cluster of sports bars and restaurants.
The revelry could go on until 2 a.m. because Lincoln, like 106 other communities across the state, has expanded the hours of liquor sales at bars in the wake of a law the Nebraska Legislature passed two years ago.
What in the name of the Temperance Union is going on? Why a greater tolerance for alcohol sales? And whatever happened to “remember the Sabbath”?
Blame a lot of things, including the bad economy, a push for greater convenience for consumers, and less regard for resting on the seventh day, but Nebraska and Iowa are both part of a national trend to loosen up liquor laws.
The result has been longer hours of sale and more outlets for alcohol than ever before.
Though lawmakers say they're only reflecting the wishes of the public and local communities, anti-alcohol-abuse forces say the trend ignores liquor's detrimental impact on health.
“If you really look at what's best for public health and safety, we've been going backward for some time,” said Diane Riibe of Project Extra Mile, an Omaha-based group that works to prevent underage drinking.
To be sure, laws have also been passed in recent years to toughen penalties for drunken driving, and special enforcement efforts have been initiated to catch drivers who drink too much.
And cities such as Lincoln and Omaha are looking at tougher liquor provisions, such as new training requirements for those who sell alcohol and greater restrictions on bars in certain designated zones.
State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, speaker of the Nebraska Legislature and a sponsor of laws that have increased penalties for drunken driving, said he thinks lawmakers have supported “personal responsibility” while creating severe penalties for those who violate that trust.
“The great majority of Nebraskans use alcohol very responsibly,” Flood said. “Those who get behind the wheel and are impaired, there's an appropriate penalty for that behavior.”
Society's views toward alcohol and religion also have changed. Jim McKee, a Lincoln historian, said that the land where the city of Lincoln is now was originally owned by the Methodist Church and that religion's objections to alcohol have relaxed.
“I think people are becoming more open,” McKee said. “The society is changing.”
In recent years, lawmakers in both Nebraska and Iowa have loosened the tap on liquor:
» In 2010, communities in the Cornhusker State were given the opportunity to extend by one hour the closing time for bars, to 2 a.m. A total of 107 communities, from Omaha to Oak, Thedford to Table Rock, have made the switch.
» That same year, Gov. Dave Heineman approved allowing alcohol consumption in Nebraska state parks, with only a couple of exceptions.
» In 2011, the Iowa Legislature lifted restrictions that had discouraged alcohol sales at convenience stores and gas stations, leading to 250 new retail liquor outlets in the state.
» This year, new laws in Nebraska allow communities to approve the sale of hard liquor on Sunday mornings, and create “entertainment zones” — courtyard areas where alcoholic drinks can be carried from adjacent bars and restaurants.
Nationally there's been a push to do away with so-called “blue laws” that banned liquor sales on Sunday, to increase tax revenue for cash-strapped states and give retailers another way to make money in a tough economy.
Sixteen states in the past decade have repealed bans on Sunday liquor sales. Only 12 states still ban sales on the Sabbath, including Minnesota and Oklahoma, according to Ben Jenkins of the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council.
Modern consumers, Jenkins said, are out on Sunday, the second-busiest shopping day of the week.
“From the consumer standpoint, they welcome that added convenience,” he said. “From a state legislative standpoint, it's a means to raise revenue without having to raise taxes.”
In Iowa, loosening up rules on liquor sales at convenience stores has increased tax revenue, according to Tonya Dusold of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.
Prior to 2011, gas stations and convenience stores had to have a separate wing, with a separate cashier, to sell alcohol, which blocked such operations in smaller, rural towns. Now those requirements have been lifted.
Pushing the closing hour at Nebraska bars to 2 a.m. was a nonstarter with lawmakers for years; then, two years ago, a last-minute amendment was pushed through after Chambers of Commerce in Omaha and Lincoln lent their support. They argued the cities were less competitive for conventions and young workers because of the 1 a.m. closing.
City Council members in Lincoln and Omaha said the 2 a.m. closing time is working fine. In fact, the later closing may have reduced problems associated with a rush to the doors at 1 a.m. — to cross the river into Iowa, or rush off to after-hours parties. Now, patrons leave gradually, between midnight and 2 a.m.
“I think it's more of a question of why not (allow the extra hour)?” said Tom Mulligan, president of the Omaha City Council. “Why should we create a reason for people to pile into cars and drive over to Iowa?”
Omaha, unlike Lincoln, has not had any discussions about allowing Sunday morning liquor sales, nor has it considered approving any entertainment districts.
But Omaha is considering a new $75 fee on liquor outlets, as well as enacting new “nuisance prevention standards” on bars.
In Lincoln, meanwhile, clerks who dispense alcohol soon will have to pass a city training course, and planning is already under way for an entertainment district called The Yard just outside Lincoln's new Haymarket arena.
Riibe, with Project Extra Mile, says most of the credit for loosened liquor laws belongs to the industry's lobbyists. In Nebraska last year they spent $165,000, or about $3,400 per state senator.
Riibe pointed out that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Nebraska No. 2 for binge drinking, and placed four communities (Lincoln, Norfolk, Omaha and Grand Island) among the top 13 cities for excessive consumption of alcohol.
“We will pay a price for the erosion of these policies. We've already started to see it,” she said.
The head of the legislative committee that deals with alcohol matters in Nebraska, Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, rejected the idea that liquor lobbyists are writing state policies or that the changes have caused significant problems.
Karpisek, a former meat market owner, said small businesses are seeking new revenue sources in tough times, and that the changes have been reasonable.
Overall, times are tough for those who advocate abstinence.
Membership in the Women's Christian Temperance Union has dwindled to about 80 in Nebraska, a far cry from when the “dry” movement helped pass Prohibition nationwide in the 1930s. Only one person, Riibe, testified against the new law that allows Sunday sales of hard liquor.
Susan Kolbo of Grand Island, the WCTU's president in Nebraska, said she believes that drinking alcohol on Sunday dishonors her Savior, but doesn't see the rest of society following along.
“You sort of feel like a little, tiny surfboard against a huge wave,” Kolbo said.
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