Count on liquor industry advocates to do their best to tie liquor tax proposals into the drive for a comprehensive fiscal plan in Juneau -- thereby diverting attention from liquor-tax policy and onto the even more important question of fiscal sanity. But let's be clear: Upping the alcohol tax in Alaska is a good idea and should not wait for the even better idea of a comprehensive fiscal plan. An alcohol tax hike won't fill much of the budget gap, but it's a positive step for several reasons. We should take it.
In debating the proper state surcharge on alcoholic beverages, ''tax'' is the wrong word. ''User fee'' is more like it. Widespread consumption of alcohol is inevitably accompanied by a host of costly behaviors -- assaults, drunken driving, domestic violence, fetal alcohol syndrome. Dealing with the fallout from alcohol abuse costs the state well over $100 million yearly. Just as the state gasoline tax helps pay for wear and tear on highways, an alcohol tax helps pay for the wear and tear that alcohol abuse inflicts on society.
The problem is, alcohol pays only a small share of the costs it inflicts on public treasuries in Alaska. The alcohol tax nets the state about $12 million, compared to about $146 million that state and local governments spend on alcohol-related costs for cops and courts and prisons. Adding government health care expenses for alcohol-related ills drives the total cost even higher.
Responsible drinkers can't wash their hands of responsibility for helping recoup more of those costs. If alcohol weren't readily available for those who drink modest amounts for pleasure, it wouldn't be so readily available to those who abuse it. Part of the cost of responsible drinking is helping pay for at least some of the damage that results from allowing alcohol to be so widely available.
Fiscal plan or no, the dime-a-drink fee increase pushed by Republican Rep. Lisa Murkowski is long overdue. The state's excise fee hasn't been increased since 1983. (The state charges a flat fee per gallon of alcohol, rather than a percentage of the sales price.) The state treasury spends ever-increasing amounts of money to deal with the carnage and crime produced by alcohol abuse. Just for this coming year, Gov. Tony Knowles has proposed spending an extra $7.8 million to expand programs that combat alcohol addiction.
Considering all the social costs associated with alcohol, the 2000 report of the Alaska Criminal Justice Assessment Commission's alcohol policy committee recommended increasing the state's alcohol user fee by 25 cents a drink. At a dime a drink, Rep. Murkowski's proposal has been watered down already; it shouldn't be watered down any further.
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