CHEYENNE — Fremont County officials and residents are again behind an effort to increase the state tax on beer to raise money for substance abuse treatment.
Wyoming’s 2-cents-per-gallon tax on malt beverages is the lowest in the nation. It has remained unchanged since it was first passed in 1935 — slightly more than a year after Prohibition was repealed.
Meanwhile, substance abuse treatment funding concerns have only escalated, according to many people in Fremont County.
Nancy Eckstein is vice president of the Riverton Community Food Bank. She said she has been trying for two years to get the tax raised.
Now that legislative leaders have assigned a beer tax study to the Joint Interim Revenue Committee, Eckstein has been contacting committee members and other lawmakers.
Eckstein said she has an academic degree in addictions and human service and has worked in the addiction field for nine years. She wants a 5-cents-per-gallon beer tax and also would like to see a 5 percent tax on liquor, although that isn’t part of the interim study.
Fremont County officials want the additional revenue to support the Alcohol Crisis Center in Riverton.
Although a significant number of tribal members from the Wind River Indian Reservation frequent the center, the tribes don’t contribute money toward its support, said Eckstein and Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness.
The mayor said of the 430 people who used the crisis center in February, 414 were American Indians.
The tribes’ position, Warpness said, is that they don’t sell alcohol on the reservation.
“And we sell it to their people here in town and in Lander. And we’re the ones who need to take care of the problem,” he said.
Warpness said he recognizes tribal members as responsible residents of Fremont County. He noted that the tribes help the center — putting a new roof on it and buying washers and dryers, for example.
“... But there isn’t a revenue stream we can depend on,” he said.
State Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, the executive director of Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing, said he receives statistics from the center every month and is aware that a majority of clients of the Alcohol Crisis Center are from the reservation.
It’s no secret, Goggles said, that alcohol abuse is a problem among the American Indian population on the reservation.
He agreed the center needs a steady revenue stream.
Goggles said he has sponsored bills to allow a local optional tax on alcohol but they haven’t got through the Legislature because of opposition from the Wyoming Liquor Association and the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association.
“It still has the same opposition,” Goggles said Thursday. “It’s a bill that needs to have lots of work done to pass. It needs advocates in the House and Senate.”
Goggles is a member of the Joint Interim Revenue Committee.
He said the beer tax hike is “on our radar but it’s not a priority.”
“The political reality is it doesn’t have much support,” he added.
Meanwhile, Sarah Robinson, tribal liaison for the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, said Mayor Warpness’ comments on tribal use of the Riverton detox center were misleading.
Robinson is a lawyer and public defender for the city of Riverton. She said she sees an equal number of non-Indian clients charged with alcohol offenses.
The people who live in Riverton and drink too much can get home, she said.
Many tribal members do not live in Riverton, Robinson said, and if they become intoxicated the police normally take them to the Riverton detox center.
“To say they’re the only ones that go there is misleading,” Robinson said.
She also said there are nine alcohol treatment and recovery programs on the reservation.
Gary Collins is the tribal liaison for the Northern Arapaho Tribe. He said the numbers cited by the mayor represent only a small percentage of the total population of the reservation.
Collins said 2 or 3 percent of the 10,000 Arapahos and 4,000 Shoshones who live on the reservation have problems with alcohol.
An issue that should be raised, he said, is the amount of alcohol sold in Riverton and Lander.
“If Riverton wants to sell alcohol then they have got to deal with the issues,” Collins said. “If they don’t want to support a crisis center, they shouldn’t sell alcohol.”
Collins suggested Fremont County increase the fees on liquor licenses if money is needed for the crisis center in Riverton.
Alcohol industry resistance
The alcohol industry has been resistant to any increase in the tax on beer or on any alcoholic beverage.
Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee, recommended the interim study on the beer tax to raise money preferably for alcohol abuse treatment.
“It is going to be hard to get passed,” Peterson said Wednesday. “I wanted the committee to at least look at it in the budget session.”
As a nonbudget bill, the beer tax — if it receives committee approval — will need a two-thirds majority to be considered by the full Legislature in February.
Rep. Rita Campbell, R-Shoshoni, said she had a beer tax bill drafted for the session that began in January but didn’t introduce it because she didn’t believe it would receive support.
It was too similar to all the other beer tax bills that failed in the past decade, she said.
“I didn’t feel that it would go, and we have such a strong liquor lobbyist who is definitely not for it,” Campbell said.
“It’s just ridiculous that we don’t feel comfortable about bringing that forward,” she added.
Opponents of a higher tax on beer contend it would generate little revenue compared to the ill will it would provoke among beer drinkers. They also claim the tax should be kept low because beer is the working man’s beverage.
The beer tax raises $265,000 a year for the state’s general fund, according to the Wyoming Liquor Division. The agency says a 5 percent tax would generate $668,000 per year.
David Jernigan is a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the alcohol business for decades. He said Wyoming’s beer tax is so low the state might as well not be taxing the beverage at all.
He said it is difficult to raise taxes on any alcohol product but it can be done.
In 2009 then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a capital construction bill he had promoted to raise $114 million per year from higher taxes on all alcoholic beverages, including the tax on beer, which went from 18.5 cents to 23 cents per gallon.
In 2011 the Maryland Legislature increased the sales tax on all alcohol products for the first time since 1955.
“It took a pretty big consumer movement. There were about 1,200 groups across the state behind it,” Jernigan said.
The Maryland tax raises $75 million per year earmarked for the developmentally disabled, mental health care, alcohol and drug treatment, and health care worker training. Jernigan said advocates need a “counterweight” to overcome the well-organized alcohol industry lobbyists — such as strong political leaders like the Illinois example or a strong statewide coalition like the Maryland example.