Bars

Lori Sanders, a bartender at Hank’s Roadside Bar and Grill in Wright, laughs with a customer during a shift earlier this fall. As lawmakers look for ways to raise revenues, they've begun considering increases to taxes on alcohol.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune

New so-called “vice taxes” on cigarettes and alcohol have been one of the few popular taxes among Wyomingites. A poll last year found that 81 percent favored raising taxes on alcohol and 78 percent favored raising them on cigarettes.

Now, the Legislature’s Interim Joint Revenue Committee is moving forward on both proposals. While the committee’s consideration of a $1 per pack increase on cigarettes drew more attention and discussion at its meeting in Cheyenne earlier this month, the panel also advanced proposals to raise three separate alcohol taxes:

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  • The revenue committee will debate the bills at its December meeting, where members will decide whether or not to sponsor the measures and encourage passage by the full Legislature.

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said he requested the bill on taxing alcohol to pay for substance abuse programs in part to learn how much money could be raised.

Kinskey said he had been researching the history of Wyoming’s sales tax and learned that in the 1930s, the governor — Democrat Leslie Miller — believed that if a liquor tax was introduced, counties would have enough money to eliminate the property tax.

Easier sell

While taxes on alcohol are an easier political sell than raising sales or property tax — or implementing an income tax — they’re also not able to raise as much money.

Quadrupling the malt beverage tax would raise just under $2 million per year. Raising the sales tax an additional 1 cent on wine, spirits and beer would bring in roughly $1.4 million, while allowing the liquor division to increase its profit margin would lead to around $3 million per year in annual revenue.

In all, the Legislative Service Office estimates that all the alcohol taxes combined would generate about $6.4 million per year, a drop in the bucket next to the $385 million budget gap the state is facing for the upcoming fiscal year due to declines in the energy sector.

Still, the alcohol taxes may be able to sneak through a Legislature, and especially a state senate, that has been hostile to looking at new revenue before deep cuts are imposed on state spending.

“I do support raising the cigarette tax, as well as taxes on beer and alcohol,” said Revenue Committee co-chair Sen. R. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley. “All those things cost the state money.”

The measures to increase taxes specifically on alcohol are also not the only bills being considered by the committee that would affect drinkers in Wyoming. A proposed “tourism tax” — which the committee renamed as a lodging and hospitality tax — would raise the state sales tax by 1 percent on businesses that are thought to cater to out-of-state visitors, including bars.

Zannie Driskill, who operates hospitality businesses near Devils Tower, testified in favor of that tax. Driskill acknowledged that the levy would be applied to Wyoming residents who went to bars but said that they could choose not to go.

“Drinking is a luxury,” she said. “Not a right.”

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Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics including the Legislature and Wyoming’s D.C. delegation, focusing especially on the major issues facing the Cowboy State like economic diversification and what it means to be the most conservative state in the nation.

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