A decision Wednesday by the House Republican caucus to block any alcohol tax hike this session is abominable on two counts. First, it was made in a private meeting of elected officials with no public scrutiny or input. Second, it was a needless capitulation to the alcohol industry.
The caucus deferred to House Finance Co-Chair Bill Williams, R-Saxman, even though a majority of the caucus reportedly was ready to support the tax hike. The caucus, in other words, was ready to move the tax but not to roll one of its members. That puts the onus on Rep. Williams, and we hope it's not too late to change his mind.
Rep. Williams said he stalled the bill because he wants ''something everybody can agree to.'' In other words, the industry to be taxed had a veto over the amount. But when did Alaska cede its taxing authority to the alcohol industry?
Some in the industry complain that Rep. Lisa Murkowski's proposal, a 10-cent-a-drink increase, ''taxes responsible citizens and businesses for the abuse of a few.''
That's true, and -- contrary to the industry's view -- it makes sense. Alcohol abuse costs the state roughly $250 million a year for police, courts, jails and a panoply of social services to deal with alcohol-related violence, accidents, and social problems. Alcohol drinkers-- through alcohol taxes -- pay about 5 cents of every dollar the state spends on these various forms of cleanup. That's way, way too small a share.
Responsible users should help pay those costs because wider alcohol abuse comes part and parcel with the freedom to drink. The reality is, there's no way to extract anything approaching those costs from the tiny minority of abusers. The same laws give easy access to alcohol to both responsible and abusive users. One result, along with the social and convivial aspects of alcohol, is a great deal of social mayhem. What a tax increase would do, essentially, is shift a bigger share of these costs from the general public to the users of alcohol. That's only fair.
Instead of a tax increase, would drinkers rather see communities ban the sale and possession of alcohol altogether? That already happens in some smaller communities that have banned alcohol altogether to protect themselves.
If Rep. Williams blocks HB225 in his committee, there will be at minimum an eight-month delay in further legislative action on the issue. During that time, the well-heeled industry can dig in deeper in hopes of killing the tax altogether.
There's still time to change the picture before the Legislature goes home next week. Rep. Williams must be moved if there's any hope of pushing through an alcohol tax hike this session. This is the time for all who support a significant alcohol tax increase to speak up. Rep. Williams' phone number is 907-465-3424.
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