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A dime a drink would help solve Maryland’s budget woes

Washington Post Editorial

Sunday, January 30, 2011; 7:44 PM

ALCOHOL LOBBYISTS, those perennial darlings of lawmakers in Annapolis, are fighting tooth and nail to maintain Maryland’s rock-bottom tax rates on beer, wine and spirits, last changed decades ago and now among the lowest in the nation. From the gnashing of the lobby’s teeth, you’d think that raising Maryland’s tax on liquor to the national average or a little higher would sink the local economy and send barflies skittering across state lines.

Lawmakers have long swallowed such drivel in return for generous campaign contributions, which it would be impolite to call bribes. Isn’t it time that the state asked this long-coddled industry to bear some slight burden to help close a severe budget deficit?

A proposal before the General Assembly would increase taxes on alcohol by a dime a drink, thereby raising about $216 million in new revenue. In percentage terms, that’s a steep increase but only because Maryland has left its current rates unchanged for so long – since 1955 for spirits and since 1972 for wine and beer. The result is that the tax on hard liquor is lower than in all but three other states, and the taxes on beer and wine rank 44th and 37th in the nation, respectively. Maryland is the nation’s Cheap Drunk State.

The budget proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for the fiscal year starting this July would slash spending on social services; to localities that need to operate schools and municipalities that must maintain sidewalks and roads; to hospitals and other vital services – almost $1 billion in reductions in a general fund budget of $14.6 billion. That’s on top of billions more in cuts to projected spending the past three years. Almost no one and nothing in the state has gone unscathed, either from spending cuts or higher taxes – with the notable exception of the alcohol industry.

Liquor lobbyists like to suggest that higher taxes on booze will not promote public health and safety. But an update on a wide-ranging study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Boston University School of Public Health found that Maryland’s proposed tax increase would save 33 lives lost in alcohol-related incidents and prevent 370 alcohol-related violent acts. That’s on top of preventing thousands of cases of alcohol dependence and abuse annually. The harm stemming from alcohol abuse costs Maryland, like every other state, hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars annually.

The industry also portrays a tax increase on liquor as a threat to jobs. That’s hard to believe given an absence of any correlation between the rates of state unemployment and alcohol taxes nationally.

Dozens of Maryland lawmakers – though, notably, not a single Republican – have pledged their support for raising the liquor tax. Even the Democratic state Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., an alcohol lobby favorite whose family owns a liquor store, has conceded that a tax increase is on the table, though he thinks a dime a drink is too much. Maybe this year sanity and equity will prevail, at long last.