BOISE, Idaho — Some lawmakers have contended there is a struggle with alcohol on the Nez Perce Reservation that gives them reason enough to block the tribe from getting a liquor license for its new $16 million convention center and hotel.
The Nez Perce Tribe near Lewiston already has a beer and wine license, but now wants to sell cocktails to visitors at the facility near its existing casino on the Clearwater River as part of economic development plans. Under Idaho’s strict liquor laws, the tribe needs a state exemption because its convention center and hotel are outside city limits.
The measure was up for a hearing after introduction Tuesday in the House State Affairs Committee. But ahead of the hearing, at least five GOP legislators wanted it defeated before members of the public can weigh in. Among those lawmakers was Rep. Brent Crane of Nampa, who contended the bill could promote drinking on the reservation.
“The tribe has struggled with the issue of alcoholism,” Crane said, adding he didn’t think easing restrictions on liquor by the drink will help the Nez Perce with that issue.
A phone call to the Nez Perce tribal leadership wasn’t immediately returned.
Other lawmakers counter it is inappropriate to apply stereotypes to Native American groups, just to maintain restrictions on them that the Idaho Legislature has regularly eased for others. Democratic Rep. John Gannon of Boise also pointed out alcohol problems aren’t confined to Indian reservations.
“It’s unfair and wrong to look at the tribe in the way in which it has been commented about alcohol use,” Gannon said. “You can go into downtown Boise … on a Friday or Saturday night and see alcohol problems. I think alcohol problems occur in all populations.”
Idaho has a liquor license quota system that allows a single, state-issued liquor license for every 1,500 people in a city — a system meant to promote temperance when it became law in 1947. But the Legislature has granted exemptions, including for golf courses, airports, race tracks, ski resorts and other facilities that fall outside municipal boundaries.
This bill is tailored for federally recognized Indian tribes that own food, conference and lodging facilities within reservation boundaries where there’s also a 35,000-square-foot convention center and a 50-room hotel.
Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, echoed Crane’s concerns — not for the Nez Perce but for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes in southeastern Idaho near his district.
“If this legislation passes, it will be a matter of time before the Sho-Bans will” apply for a liquor license, Andrus contended.
The Shoshone-Bannock tribes are currently applying for a wine and beer license for their new hotel on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.
In a statement released Tuesday, Shoshone-Bannock spokeswoman Randy’L Teton said the tribes do not have a position regarding the proposed legislation but believe the Nez Perce would “have proper federally approved regulations and enforcement procedures in place” if the legislation passes.
“Even if this proposed legislation passes, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have no foreseeable plans to sell, or to allow the sale of liquor within the Fort Hall Reservation,” said Nathan Small, Chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council.
But Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Soda Springs and sponsor of Tuesday’s measure, also said leaders told him they had no firm plans to apply for a liquor-by-the-drink license, should his bill become law.
Other proponents also countered it wasn’t intended to increase availability of alcohol for those living on reservations, rather as an amenity for convention center and casino visitors who expect to be able to relax with a cocktail when they travel for business or pleasure.
Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said he appreciated the Idaho Constitution’s provisions promoting temperance and sobriety. But he said it would be unfair to block the Nez Perce from an exemption granted so many others.
“We do have to recognize that individuals that are attending conventions, individuals that are enjoying gaming, would prefer to have something stronger than just beer or wine,” Barbieri said.