LINCOLN — The beer brewer likes the idea of Nebraska hiring more investigators to enforce state liquor laws. The beer seller? Not so much.
The mixed reviews surfaced in the Legislature during a public hearing Monday on a bill that would authorize the Nebraska State Patrol to hire 15 new investigators for alcohol enforcement. The new hires would cost the state an estimated $1.6 million per year.
A lobbyist for Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewery, joined the state's liquor wholesalers and distributors in voicing support for the bill. Lobbyists for alcohol retailers, meanwhile, said those who own bars, liquor stores and supermarkets don't need additional oversight.
“We've got enough law enforcement out there to take care of this,” said Jim Moylan with the Nebraska Licensed Beverage Association.
In a related matter, members of the General Affairs Committee heard more on a bill that would lessen the fines for second or third offenses of selling alcohol to a minor during a law enforcement compliance check. The committee took no action on either bill.
Hobert Rupe, director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, testified in support of Legislative Bill 579, the proposal that would beef up liquor enforcement. He said the commission transferred its dozen inspectors to the patrol in 1987. Now, eight or nine investigators are assigned primarily to the task.
The ratio of liquor establishments to inspectors in 1987 was 345 to one, he said. Now, it's 605 to one.
What's more, the state issued just 222 special event liquor licenses in 1987. Last year it issued nearly 4,000 such licenses, Rupe said.
“I believe the State Patrol does a fantastic job,” he said, “but they're being stretched.”
Several senators on the committee raised concerns about the ongoing costs of hiring new officers, which, including salary, benefits and equipment, runs about $100,000 annually for each investigator.
Rupe pointed out that the $30 million in excise taxes on alcoholic beverages that the commission collects each year goes directly into state coffers. That figure has grown by about $10 million since 1987, he said.
“The only thing that hasn't gone up is the number of investigators,” he said.
Moylan pointed out that sheriff's deputies and police officers can, and do, enforce the state's liquor laws.
Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, sponsor of the proposal, said the patrol is currently authorized to hire 477 officers, the smallest number since 1986. Nonetheless, he indicated that he would consider reducing the requested number of liquor investigators if it would help advance his bill to the floor.
No one from the State Patrol testified at the hearing.
As for the related measure, Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus introduced LB 413 “to prevent liquor licensees from being stung to death.”
Liquor law violations accumulate over a four-year period, with each subsequent violation prompting longer suspensions and higher fines. A first violation typically carries a 10- or 12-day suspension, which the state will waive if the violator pays a fine of $50 per day. A second violation within four years doubles the daily fine amount.
Schumacher's bill would prevent compliance check violations from counting against a license holder for the purposes of increasing penalties.
He suggested that overzealous enforcement makes compliance checks more like sting operations, if not entrapment. The undercover law officers who carry out the checks hire minors to attempt to buy alcohol in the state's roughly 5,500 liquor establishments.
The beverage association and the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association testified in support of the bill. They said the majority of liquor license holders pass compliance checks.
Rupe testified against the bill, disputing the senator's characterization of entrapment. He said compliance checks work, in part because they carry increasingly stringent penalties for multiple offenses.
Law enforcement ticketed 31 establishments for a second or third violation under compliance checks in 2012, which resulted in nearly $80,000 in fines.
Schumacher's bill would have reduced those fines by about $48,000, according to a fiscal note attached to the legislation.
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