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Health care group pushing for higher alcohol tax

By DANIEL DIVILIO Staff Writer
EASTON
A Maryland citizens’ health initiative is pushing for the reintroduction of state legislation that failed to pass last year increasing the alcohol tax.


Health Care For All wants to see the unapproved Lorraine Sheehan Health and Community Services Act of 2010 brought back to the table in the 2011 General Assembly session. According to its website, HCFA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing access to quality and affordable healthcare for all Marylanders.

A fact sheet from HCFA and several organizations with which it is partnering on the alcohol tax initiative states that the current tax on distilled spirits is $1.50 per gallon and has not been raised since 1955, while the 40-cent per gallon tax on wine and 9-cent per gallon tax on beer were both set in 1972.

The 2010 bill called for a tax increase of 10 cents per alcoholic drink which came out to taxes of $10.03 per gallon on distilled spirits, $2.96 per gallon on wine and $1.16 per gallon on beer.

“We’re pushing for next year big time,” said HCFA Executive Director Vincent DeMarco in a Friday telephone interview of his organization’s promotion of the bill.

DeMarco said HCFA hit the campaign trail over the summer, speaking with candidates and gauging their support for the alcohol tax increase. With the elections over, he said the organization appears to have state elected officials willing to reintroduce the bill and a majority in the House of Delegates that will back it.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in building support for the Lorraine Sheehan dime-a-drink alcohol tax proposal,” DeMarco said.

The proceeds of the tax under the 2010 bill were to go to funds supporting developmental disability assistance, addiction treatment and prevention, mental health care and the state’s Medicaid trust, with the remainder allowed to be deposited in Maryland’s general fund. Last year’s bill stated that every $1 invested in addiction treatment saves $7 in reduced crime and criminal justice costs and when savings related to health care are factored in, every $1 invested saves $12. One goal of the bill was to find additional funding for the backlog of people qualifying for developmental disability assistance.

With the next General Assembly session not kicking off for another month, DeMarco said those supporting a reintroduction and passage of the bill need to start lobbying their elected officials.

“We’re talking to people all across the state and urging them to contact their legislators,” he said.
One Eastern Shore legislator Del. Rudolph Cane, D-37A-Wicomico, whose district includes portions of Dorchester County is listed by HCFA as a supporter for a reintroduced measure. Cane could not be reached for comment. Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-37B-Talbot, said she knows that there are some state legislators very interested in reintroducing a bill during the upcoming General Assembly session increasing the alcohol tax. Without seeing such a bill though, she said she cannot definitively say whether she would support or oppose it.

“I’m not sure what the legislation is going to look like or where the money’s going to go,” Haddaway-Riccio said. Haddaway-Riccio said she is hopeful that money will be donated by taxpayers through a check box on their tax forms this year to help solve the backlog of cases for those with developmental disabilities. Those donations, she said, will help cover the costs for those eligible to receive assistance through the cash-strapped program.

“At this time, I’m opposed to all tax increases,” Haddaway-Riccio said. State Sen. Richard Colburn, R-37-Mid-Shore, said Economics 101 classes teach that a recession is not the time to raise taxes of any sort and the focus needs to be on stimulating the economy. Maryland’s Eastern Shore has never recovered, he said, from the penny sales tax increase that led many to shop in sales tax-free Delaware.

“It’s a tax at the wrong time,” said Colburn of the alcohol tax proposal.

Colburn said in his 25 years as a state legislator, there have been annual attempts to increase the sin taxes such as those on alcohol and tobacco. He said if he really thought that a 10-cent per drink tax increase would reduce alcohol abuse by both adults and minors, he would support such a measure.

“But I’ve never seen data that proved to me (it would),” Colburn said.

As for those opposed to any tax increases in these tough financial times, Demarco said the proposal will actually help the economy by putting money into job-creating sectors.

“By reducing alcohol abuse, this proposal will save lives and money,” DeMarco added.

Maryland has made a lot of progress, DeMarco said, on reducing tobacco use over the last decade through increased taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. He said there has been a 32 percent decrease in the number of smokers in the state, well above the national average.

“We can learn from our success on tobacco,” DeMarco said.

Joe Petro the proprietor of Easton’s two Hair O’ the Dog Wine and Spirits stores and the CoffeeCat and NightCat cafes said the tax will end up being passed on to consumers if levied. It would lead to price increases on alcohol, Petro said, whether it is charged to the distributor or retail seller, if not directly to the buyer.

“It’s a tax that’s going to hit everybody who consumes,” he said.

Upon learning that the tax revenue would primarily be aimed at funding developmental disability assistance and addiction treatment, Petro stated that both are certainly worthy causes.

Petro said he does not oppose the tax increase at a dime a drink. At that rate, he said, it probably will not deter people from purchasing alcohol, just like many people continue to smoke despite the high taxes on cigarettes.

“People still smoke and taxes on smoking are tremendous,” said Petro, adding though that the alcohol tax could affect retirees and others living on fixed incomes.