The beer tax

Apr 13, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

It's hard to justify keeping the 1935 rate in place

A curious tidbit of Wyoming's revenue stream comes in the form of the state malt beverage tax. It stands at 2 cents per gallon of beer sold, which isn't very much, and it hasn't been raised since 1935, which is an awfully long time.

The Wyoming Legislature gets reminded of this from time to time. Other industries and manufacturers whose taxes have been raised regularly through the years express justifiable disbelief at the seemingly untouchable beer tax.

And, more recently, civic leaders who say the tax ought to be increased so the revenue could be used to help combat alcohol abuse issues also have raised the topic with legislators.

Malt beverage producers and vendors oppose the tax. They say the added cost would have to be passed on to the consumer at the retail level, which could cause people to buy less beer. This is an industry that has some clout with lawmakers. How else to explain a tax rate left unchanged for almost 80 years?

In Fremont County, municipal leaders in Riverton have been prominent in recent efforts to interest legislators in the idea of raising the tax, suggesting an increase from the current 3 cents per gallon to 28 cents. That's a hefty jump, but it simply would bring Wyoming in line with the beer tax rates in other states.

Beyond the basic logic of fair taxation, the local leaders make a compelling case for using added malt beverage tax revenue for prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse. The dangers of alcohol abuse are everywhere, as are its effects. They run a grim gamut from drunk drivers on our roadways to fetal alcohol syndrome among newborns, with domestic violence, sexual assault, robberies, fights, financial losses, workplace dangers, rising health care costs and family heartache all prominent in the picture.

The issue is raised in Fremont County because of a recognized alcohol problem here, but the truth is that alcohol abuse and its consequences are a concern everywhere in our state. There are examples of successful intervention, law enforcement, education and treatment efforts of different kinds in different places, but they all need money to get going and stay active.

This case has been made to legislators time and again, but never has the necessary consensus been mustered to pass an increase in the tax. We are an anti-tax state, and rare is the politician who wants to take the lead in a tax increase.

Lawmakers also express distaste for "earmarking" new tax revenue, meaning they would like to have the money available to the state's general fund rather than designating it for a specific purpose.

But the Wyoming public has proved itself willing to accept tax earmarks many times. Lodging taxes aimed at raising money for tourism promotion have been in effect for years. Taxes for capital facilities have been approved by voters, as have taxes for schools, senior citizen centers, recreation complexes and many more projects. In Fremont County, voters last year approved a higher sales tax to help pay for infrastructure improvements.

In the recent legislative session, lawmakers passed a 10-cent per gallon increase in fuel sold in Wyoming, with that money earmarked for roads construction statewide. Obviously, stiff-arming an increase in the beer tax to help fight alcohol abuse on the basis of not wanting to earmark the money falls on its face in light of recent history.

What is necessary is the will to do it, and here we might have a recent example to guide us. The gasoline tax passed in February by the Legislature originated as an idea from the governor, who pushed hard for it in his supplemental budget request. It wasn't all that easy, but he got it done.

Here, then, is the opportunity for a similar campaign. Do the same thing with the beer tax? Governor, make this your next crusade. Call for an increase in the malt beverage tax, aiming the money at alcohol abuse treatment.

The argument for it is at least as strong as the one for the gasoline tax, and the governor could provide some political cover for lawmakers who might not want to originate the idea but would be willing to carry it at the behest of Gov. Mead.

There are many good reasons to raise the beer tax to a fair level, and precious few good ones for not doing it. Fremont County, keep the heat on.

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