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Beer tax bill fails

Mar 13, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

But the legislation fared better this year

Well-meaning supporters of increasing the malt beverage tax in Wyoming have taken another run at the idea through the Wyoming Legislature. And they have failed again.

Failure is never fun, but the self-help quotes of the bumper-sticker variety are on to something when they say failure often contains the seeds of success.

The history of legislation in Cheyenne is dotted with many occasions of a bill failing in its first incarnation, its second and even its third. The state lottery bill is just one example.

Often the initial failure is not because the bill is despised or heavily opposed, but rather because legislators simply aren't familiar enough with the subject matter or feel they don't have time to concentrate on it. Certainly there are cases when legislation has been hurried to passage, but more often than not legislators are noted for being cautious in taking up new issues.

Before a couple of years ago, about the only person speaking openly and actively in favor of raising the beer tax in Wyoming was Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness. The mayor's idea simply didn't catch on. Last year, it got just two votes of approval in the legislature.

But the mayor and other proponents of the idea kept working. This year, it failed again -- but this time with 20 votes, not just two. In the shorter biennial budget session, which is just half the length allotted for next year's general session, 20 votes is a pretty good showing for a bill that was defeated.

The increase in vote total means clearly that more legislators took notice of the issue, more legislators educated themselves about the issue, more legislators talked among themselves about the merits of the issue, so more voted for the bill when presented with the opportunity.

Supporters might be tempted to predict that support for the bill will increase by a similar exponent two years from now and cruise to easy passage. That's no sure thing, but the bill's progress through two sessions of legislative procedure at least is an indicator that it is gaining favor for passage in the next session, when there will be less pressure to conclude the proceedings quickly, and when the state's biennial budget isn't staring every lawmaker square in the face.

At the core of the issue remains the historical oddity that the tax is low and has remained untouched for nearly 80 years, coupled with the admirable effort to find a publicly supported revenue source that could be used in the prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse in our state.

Also working in favor of the drive to raise the beer tax is the unfortunate reality that two years from now, whatever problems we are dealing with today related to alcohol abuse in Wyoming are going to be even worse.

At the very least, these factors suggest that the issue warrants thoughtful treatment during the interim period between sessions (including input from concerned malt beverage dealers), a detailed committee hearing or two with legislators, and a full, conspicuous public debate in the halls of the capital next time around -- pass or fail.

A higher beer tax has not yet cleared the threshold of passage in the Wyoming Legislature. But it always has had plausibility, and now there is a bit of momentum on its side as well. Its time might still come.