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The Cheap Drunk State

The Washington Post
July 26, 2010 – 10:21 AM

THERE’S NO REASON to take seriously the dire warnings about Maryland’s looming deficits unless taxpayers are confident that state officials are at least doing the relatively easy things to produce revenue and cut costs. The problem is that Annapolis has shrunk from some of those easy measures, even while lately taking more painful steps such as raising tuition for higher education.

The most glaring example is lawmakers’ distaste for raising tens of millions of dollars by increasing the tax on alcohol to something at least approaching the national average. The last time Maryland lawmakers mustered the will to raise the tax on a glass of whiskey, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, and most Americans had scarcely heard of Vietnam. That was 1955. The tax on wine and beer was last raised in 1972. The state taxes booze so lightly that it’s a wonder it hasn’t become known as a mecca for drunkards.

The consequence of rock-bottom alcohol taxes in Maryland is that the state has had to raise other taxes instead. Raising the tax on alcohol to the national average — in other words, by a few pennies on a drink or a bottle of beer — would yield $72 million a year, enough to fund a host of important social programs. Programs such as drug and alcohol prevention.

A broad coalition of organizations organized by the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative is challenging candidates for the General Assembly to sign a pledge to raise the state’s alcohol tax by a dime a drink, which would put it slightly above the national average and raise more than $200 million for the state. The coalition would have the lawmakers pledge to direct the funds to mental health services; services for people with developmental disabilities; health care for indigent and childless adults; and programs to address drug and alcohol abuse. Those would all be deserving recipients of additional state funding; deficit reduction would also be an option.

We are under no illusions that candidates facing tough primaries in the midst of a recession will uniformly rush to embrace new taxes. But the coalition’s crusade would be worthy even if it only refocused attention on an issue that has been ignored for too long in Annapolis — or rather buried by the alcohol lobby.