- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A bill to eliminate bar closing times in Nebraska drew stiff opposition Monday from cities as well as advocates who fight against drunken driving and binge drinking.

No one testified in favor of the bill during a hearing of the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee. Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill said he introduced the bill so businesses could decide for themselves.

Larson said he doubted most bars would remain open 24 hours a day, but he wanted to give them the option for holidays such as New Year’s Eve or special events.

“The marketplace could and should dictate when establishments close for the day,” he said in testimony to the General Affairs Committee. “… I believe in personal responsibility and not over-regulating our businesses.”

Nebraska imposes a 1 a.m. closing time for bars but gives local governments the option to extend theirs to 2 a.m. with a supermajority vote of a city council, village board or county board. Omaha and Lincoln have allowed bars to close at 2 a.m. since 2010.

The bill would also apply to public commons areas designated as entertainment districts, such as Lincoln’s Railyard entertainment district, and to retail alcohol sales. Nebraska’s border states generally let bars stay open until 2 a.m., although most bars in Missouri have to close at 1:30 a.m.

Opponents included the city of Lincoln, the League of Nebraska Municipalities and Project Extra Mile, which works to stop underage drinking.

Lincoln City Councilman Roy Christensen spoke against the bill on the city’s behalf, saying it would place additional strain on the city’s police department during hours when its staffing levels were lowest. Christensen said city officials were also concerned that the bill would undermine the Railyard’s family-friendly atmosphere.

“We’re concerned we would lose local control,” Christensen said. “We really believe this is a one-size-fits-nobody solution.”

Reggie Bollinger, a recovering alcoholic from Lincoln, told lawmakers that Nebraska’s requirements are already liberal, and the bar closing times gave him a “forced respite” from alcohol when he used to drink.

“It’s been a time where I’ve been unable to purchase alcohol, which has benefited me,” he said. “It has given me the opportunity to sober up when I’m in the middle of a drinking binge. It’s given me the opportunity to think and consider my decisions. If you take that window away, for a person like me, that’s scary.”

Jaimi Calfee, whose daughter was killed by a drunken driver in 2011, told lawmakers that Nebraska lacks the public transit services that are available in other cities where bars are open 24 hours, such as Las Vegas and New Orleans.

Nicole Carritt, executive director of Project Extra Mile, pointed to Nebraska’s high national ranking as a binge drinking state.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked the state No. 2 in a 2010 survey that looked at rates of binge drinking. Four major cities - Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island and Norfolk - ranked in the top 15 nationally.

Most U.S. states require bars to close at a specific hour. Nevada, Florida and Georgia allow local governments to regulate bar-closing times but do not impose a statewide policy, according to the National Alcoholic Beverage Control Association.

Senators took no action on the bill Monday. Larson said he believed it could still be advanced out of committee, arguing that testifiers at the hearing only represented a vocal minority.

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