Bipartisan backers step up push for alcohol tax

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Supporters of an alcohol tax increase hope they're on the verge of a breakthrough in the Legislature.

"If there's one thing people can do, it's focus on my guys - the Senate majority," Senate Finance Co-Chairman Dave Donley, an Anchorage Republican, told Juneau clergy Tuesday. "I think we're very, very close."

Donley's committee has passed a so-called "dime-a-drink" increase in the alcohol excise tax, which is now about 3 to 4 cents depending upon the kind of alcohol. The tax increase, which would raise from $30 million to $34 million, would pass on the Senate floor, Donley said.

In the House, Anchorage Rep. Lisa Murkowski's dime-a-drink bill was tabled two months ago when an amendment was added for a variety of other taxes. It could be revived at any time by six members on the 11-member Finance Committee.

During a closed caucus of the House Republican majority Tuesday, Murkowski made a pitch for moving the measure.

"We're not there yet. (But) I'm holding out for a dime increase," Murkowski said this morning. "There's a lot of pressure to go to less.

"The last time we took this up was 20 years ago. And the next time we're going to take this up is probably going to be 20 years from now. So you sell out at a nickel?"

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat who has sponsored a bill for a quarter-a-drink increase, said that he has seen anti-tax literature in a liquor store that makes it sound like supporters "belong in a socialist state some place."

Since the tax was last raised, in 1983, "the cost of this industry has grown dramatically," Elton said. On top of that, the tax itself has lost a lot of ground to inflation, he said.

But Rep. Norm Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican, emphasized that a dime increase amounts to 300 percent. Rokeberg, who is sponsoring a bill to increase penalties for drunken driving and to offer innovative treatment programs for alcoholism, said he would be more comfortable with a nickel and thinks that could pass on the House floor.

Murkowski said she might have to compromise on the amount to get the tax to the floor, where it might be increased with support from Democrats.

A new analysis comparing all taxes on alcohol throughout the nation shows Alaska at the bottom in the total collected by a state, Murkowski said.

"The industry has been just screaming about this 300 percent increase," she said. "And since we got the information out about, well, where does Alaska stack up in relation to other states when you look at the cumulative tax effect, we haven't heard a word from them. They don't have a response. They know, they know that in Alaska we get off way too easy when it comes to the alcohol tax."

Officials of the Alaska Cabaret Hotel Restaurant & Retailers Association couldn't be reached for comment.

Religious leaders are preparing to get into the fray, according to Howard Scaman of Juneau, executive secretary to the Council on Alcohol Abuse and Public Safety of Alaska. Juneau clergy now have clearance from their colleagues elsewhere in the state to lobby legislators on their behalf, Scaman said.

"I tend to be more optimistic than pessimistic," said Cindy Cashen of the Juneau chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Murkowski thinks an increase in the tax would be a good idea, even without a billion-dollar fiscal gap. One study shows state costs for alcohol abuse at about $450 million.

But Murkowski also is a leader in the Legislature's bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus, and she acknowledged the varying forces behind the bill "get tangled up."

Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, a member of the minority's fiscal negotiating team in the House, said she's not clear if the alcohol tax might move on its own, or as part of a larger plan.

Donley told the clergy it's possible a bipartisan coalition could form to insist on an alcohol tax as the price for their votes for tapping a key reserve fund to balance the next state budget. "It could become an endgame issue."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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