JUNEAU -- Senate Republicans beat back an effort to send a dime-a-drink alcohol tax increase to the floor for a vote Wednesday, despite claims of widespread support for the measure.
Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, invoked a procedural move that would have forced the bill to the floor after being stalled in the Senate Rules Committee since March 15.
Republicans voted down the attempt on a party-line 13-5 vote. Many GOP lawmakers who previously expressed support for an increase, including Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, and Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, voted to block the measure from the floor.
''Basically what the Democrats were saying was release the hostage,'' Ellis said. ''The will of the body is to vote on that legislation.''
The Senate Finance Committee proposed a 10-cent per drink increase in the alcohol tax earlier this session.
Support for increasing the state's 3-cent per drink alcohol tax has been strongest in the Senate this session, said Matthew Felix, director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Despite heavy lobbying by the liquor industry, the measure still has enough support to get a majority vote in the Senate, Felix said.
Republicans in the Senate require at least 11 votes in favor of a measure before sending it from the Rules Committee, guaranteeing its passage regardless of Democrats' opposition.
Rules Committee Chairman Randy Phillips, R-Eagle River, said at least 10 Republicans are willing to vote for it.
''It appears one Republican is telling the public they support a liquor tax but will not allow it to come to the floor for a vote,'' Ellis said.
Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, voted against moving the alcohol tax increase measure from committee on Tuesday.
Wilken, who has previously expressed support for an alcohol tax, said after Tuesday's vote that he would support an alcohol tax if it makes it to the floor. But he would not offer support to get it to a vote, he said.
Wilken said Wednesday the tax should be part of a larger revenue-raising package that closes the state's estimated $963 million budget deficit.
''If we have to have a tax to get out of town, then I consider the alcohol tax as one of those I could go for,'' Wilken said.
Lobbyists pushing for an increase in the tax are dismayed by Wilken's position. But they said they are confident if the measure does go to the floor, it would pass.
''We're pretty positive it's going to get to the floor despite a few lawmakers who have objections,'' Felix said.
Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, said there remains ''substantial'' support for an increase in the alcohol tax among Republicans.
But he said Ellis' effort was ''just not the appropriate way of getting where we want to get.''
''It's not a dead issue,'' Leman said.
The House is considering a similar proposal to raise the state's alcohol tax. A measure sponsored by Rep. Lisa Murkowski, R-Anchorage, called for a 10-cent per drink increase.
But that bill appeared to be derailed after Rep. Eldon Mulder, powerful chairman of the House Finance Committee, voiced support for only a nickel-per-drink increase.
The House is now considering a 7-cent increase in the alcohol tax as part of a larger revenue package aimed at closing the state's budget deficit.
A vote on the House measure could happen as early as Thursday. But Ellis said he will continue trying to get a Senate plan to the floor.
He said a fiscal 2003 budget passed in the Senate eliminates about $3.4 million from the state's drug and alcohol treatment programs.
''The quickest way to fix that is to pass the liquor tax,'' Ellis said.
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