Council to press again on raising beer tax

Apr 10, 2013 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The Riverton City Council passed a resolution March 2 supporting efforts to raise the tax on malt beverages in Wyoming.

The resolution will go to the Wyoming Association of Municipalities for consideration during the group's 2013 annual convention, when the WAM Board of Trustees sets policy priorities for the coming year.

The convention is in Riverton this year.

Substance abuse

The resolution is similar to the ones Riverton has offered in years past. According to the document, the current tax on malt beverages, or beer, in Wyoming is 2 cents per gallon and has not been raised since 1935. The resolution recommends raising the tax to the national average of 28 cents per gallon.

City administrator Steven Weaver said Riverton would ask that the extra revenue be diverted from the state's general fund so it can be used to pay for substance abuse programs in the state.

"We need it to fight specifically some of these problems alcohol creates," Weaver said.

Mayor Ron Warpness said designating the money for a special purpose represents a "sticking point" for legislators who have considered the resolution.

"They always (say) 'We're willing to tax, but we don't want to earmark,'" Warpness said, adding, "Then they turn around and pass a 10 cent tax on a gallon of gas and earmark it."

He said he is disappointed in state representatives who haven't seen the need to "step forward and take the heat" from groups that may be opposed to an increase in malt beverage taxes.

"It's a dance it seems like we go through, and I guess we'll just keep dancing until we get it passed," Warpness said.

Statewide problem

Weaver said he made some changes to the resolution this year, modifying the language to bring attention to the problem of alcohol abuse throughout the state.

"When I was at the last WAM (meeting) they were saying, 'This is a Fremont County problem, we don't need to support that,'" Weaver said. "I think we really need to focus on the fact that this is a statewide problem."

In the resolution he wrote that alcohol abuse in Wyoming is among the highest in the nation, and he included statistics about alcohol-related arrests in the state.

"Alcohol is, and continues to be, the drug that has the greatest influence on crime in Wyoming," the resolution states.

Councilman Lars Baker agreed, sharing a story about a building in Cheyenne that must be cleared of homeless people every morning.

"The idea that homelessness or alcohol abuse is limited to this community in the state is ridiculous," Baker said. "This is a widespread problem in almost every community we have, and we really need to do something to deal with the negative aspects of alcohol abuse."

Crisis center

The resolution refers to Fremont County as having the highest rate of alcohol abuse in Wyoming.

The document also states that the Fremont County Alcohol Crisis Center has a significant and unmet financial need, $100,000 of which is borne by the City of Riverton each year.

Baker said he was disappointed by reports suggesting the resolution was an attempt by the City of Riverton to get money for the Fremont County Alcohol Crisis Center.

"I don't think many people around the table here think the alcohol crisis center does much of a job dealing with alcohol abuse problems in the community," Baker said. "We need to go far beyond that."

He pointed to a similar facility in Sheridan that only maintains two beds for people in need of services.

"They have people who come into the program in trouble, and those people are able to transition immediately into some kind of treatment facility," Baker said. "I don't know how many beds we have here, (but clients) don't need to have some kind of daily bed and breakfast situation just so these people don't die out in the streets in the winter time."

Liquor, wine

Councilwoman Mary Ellen Christensen voted against the resolution after asking several questions about the proposed tax. She wondered why the city doesn't suggest raising the tax on liquor and wine as well as beer.

"If we're going to do it, let's do it right and do it across the board," Christensen said, noting that the tax on other alcohol also has not been raised since 1935.

She added that the cost for malt beverages has increased recently throughout the country.

"Beer traditionally was a young person's drink, (but the price) has gone up so much that kids are starting on hard liquor," Christensen said.

Warpness indicated that the resolution will face plenty of opposition without the addition of an increased tax on other alcohol products.

"We'd be extremely fortunate to get 28 (cents) on beer," he said.

Public services director Bill Urbigkit explained that all hard liquor in the state is distributed through the Wyoming Liquor Division, where a tax is added to the price. He said beer goes through a different process.

"The state doesn't distribute beer," Urbigkit said. "They're not taking a cut there."

He said the current 2 cent tax on beer is an "embarrassment."

"Why do it at all for that little amount?" he said. "(Raising the tax) is really bringing it more in line with what the state's cut on hard liquor already is. I wouldn't look at it like adding to beer and not hard liquor."

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