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Idaho beer, wine tax prompts debate

BOISE - Should Idaho nearly triple its beer and wine taxes - which haven’t been increased in four decades - to raise money for substance abuse treatment?

Those who turned out at a packed hearing on the plan this morning were sharply divided. Of the 24 people who testified, 14 were in favor, nine against, and one neutral, and there are 34 more already signed up to testify today.

“This increase is pocket change for the vast majority of responsible drinkers,” sponsor Keith Allred of The Common Interest, a good government group, told the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Though the taxes would more than triple, the increase would be less than a dollar a month for a beer drinker who buys a six-pack a week, he said. The tax also would be switched to a percentage tax on price, instead of volume, so it wouldn’t slip in buying power again like it has for the past four decades.

But Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said he’s been getting lots of calls and e-mails from Idahoans opposed to the bill - 250 e-mails on Monday morning alone. “It’s interesting - you start messing with someone’s beer, they let you know,” he said with a chuckle.

Here’s a sampling of Monday’s public testimony:

Vaughn Killeen, former Ada County sheriff and executive director of the Idaho Sheriffs Association: “We have to remember the tax has not been increased since its inception.”

George Dillard, Idaho State Good Sams: “You’re hitting the retired community kinda hard.”

Roger Batt, Idaho Wine and Grape Growers: “This targeted increase is offensive to this segment of Idaho agriculture. … This is not the economic climate in which Idaho should be generating revenue for pet projects when everyone else is being asked to tighten the belt.”

Melanie Krause, owner and wine maker, Cinder: “This bill is going to make it very difficult for us to continue to exist.”

Moya Shatz, executive director, Idaho Grape Growers: “Raising the wine tax by 246 percent would cripple the budding wine industry here in Idaho.”

Mike Clark, Cambridge resident: “With the economy headed for the toilet, nobody wants to see a tax increase but I think this is a good one.”

Sherry Parks, director of behavioral Health, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center: “Last year we treated close to 1,500 patients through the emergency room for substance abuse. … We spend over a million dollars on this population. … It’s a huge impact and it’s a very costly way to spend our taxpayers dollars and our health care dollars. … We feel like much more can be done earlier in the process to eliminate some of the high-cost treatments that we’re seeing in our facility.”

Mike Fitzgerald, former owner, TableRock Brewpub: “Most of the restaurants owned by us little guys are just shutting the doors.”

Janelle DeWeerd, freshman at Meridian High School: “Why not have the people that choose to drink pay for the cost of that choice?”

Hawk Stone, a Common Interest member who opposed the switch to a tax by price rather than volume: “It’s too expensive to get drunk on a $5 pint of beer.”

Bill Brockman, former Twin Falls county commissioner: “When the economy is good, people drink more to celebrate. During a recession, people drink more because they are depressed. … This fee is not mandatory - if you do not consume alcohol, it costs you absolutely nothing.”

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