Is it time to close the door on closing time?
Nebraska bars could stay open 24/7 under a bill (LB330) introduced Thursday by Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, chairman of the Legislature's General Affairs Committee, which handles liquor issues. The change would also allow retail liquor sales all day and night.
"What a hilarious idea," said Scott Hatfield, owner of Duffy's Tavern in Lincoln. "I just can’t imagine a scenario where the Legislature would pass something like that."
Larson said eliminating last call would keep bars from "dumping too many people in the street all at once."
Plus, he said, it fits with "the concept of free market."
Most bars in Nebraska must stop serving alcohol at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. State law sets the standard closing time at 1 o'clock but allows local governments to reduce or extend their hours as late as 2 a.m. with a super-majority vote of the city council, village board or county board.
Lincoln and Omaha both adopted 2 a.m. closing times in 2010, the first year it was allowed by the Legislature.
The change did little more than shift everyone's schedules — police, bar owners and drinkers alike — by an hour, Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady said in 2013.
The number of problem parties dropped, but the city's main detox center saw the number of people it admitted with high blood-alcohol contents continue to rise, officials said.
"Our off-sale sales are down over 90 percent since the introduction of 2 a.m. — which is fine with us," said Hatfield, also an advisory member of the city's internal liquor control committee. "That’s happened because house parties are not happening as much anymore, and that’s probably a good thing.
"I think 2 a.m. is working great," he said. "Obviously, I wish we lived in a world where people could handle it if it was 24 hours. ... I don’t think that’s necessary for us right now.”
Bars may serve 24/7 statewide in Louisiana and Nevada, and there is no last call in Atlantic City, New Jersey, or in downtown Miami's Omni entertainment district.
Among Nebraska's neighboring states, 2 a.m. is the norm. Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota and Colorado all have 2 o'clock closing times, and Wyoming bars generally close at 2 as well. Most Missouri bars must close at 1:30 a.m., but that can be extended to 3 a.m. in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.
Larson said he hopes his bill will appeal to "free-market conservatives" and Democratic lawmakers who represent downtown areas.
With the closing time as-is in Lincoln, "bars feel like they have to stay open until 2," he said.
His bill would let bar owners choose the right fit for them and their customers and would prevent people from feeling a "personal need" to keep drinking until last call, Larson said.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said the bill "shows the lack of respect (Larson) has for the intelligence of the people in the Legislature."
"I'll fight that tooth and nail," he said. "That won't go anywhere, in my opinion.
"Some people believe that the bars are allowed to stay open too long right now, because of the problems that attend that — not the least of which is driving under the influence."
Casady said he doesn't have an opinion on Larson's bill: "I'd have to do some research."
"There is a giant naturally-occurring experiment underway right now on this very issue," he wrote in a blog post from 2007 titled "Curbing yobbish behaviour."
British pubs closed at 11 p.m. until 2006; now they can stay open all day.
Reports since then "didn't look really heartening to me," Casady said Thursday. However, he said, "I wouldn't want to be making any judgments based on news articles."
Larson's proposal is part of an omnibus bill to address a broad range of tweaks and changes to the state's liquor policies, many of them at the request of the state Liquor Control Commission. Introducing the bill is standard practice for the head of the Legislature's General Affairs Committee.
Eliminating last call was not part of the Liquor Commission's formal request for this year. The commission hasn't taken an official position on the issue, said Hobie Rupe, its executive director.
Other parts of Larson's omnibus bill would:
* Allow state liquor regulators to sell alcohol they seize, rather than simply dumping it down the drain or at the local landfill.
"We had a guy who smuggled in over 800 gallons of wine that he'd stolen from a previous employer," Rupe said. Most of the wine was in kegs; the commission used a septic tank truck to haul it to North Platte's wastewater treatment plant, where it was destroyed.
In another instance, they seized 28 cases of wine — 12 bottles to a case, worth $70 each retail — that had been illegally imported from Argentina.
* Group hard cider with beer, instead of wine, under state law. Currently, distributors cannot deliver cider themselves the way they can with beer; they're required to ship it along with stronger drinks. Wine is also taxed at higher rates.
* Regulate powdered alcohol similarly to wine and hard liquor. The product isn't specifically regulated in Nebraska but hasn't hit shelves here, either.
* Give the Liquor Control Commission an additional $102,000 annually to hire two auditors and a support staff member.