Anchorage assemblyman revives push for alcohol tax

An Anchorage assemblyman has resurrected the idea of a local liquor sales tax to pay for community problems associated with alcohol and drug abuse.

Assembly Chair Dick Traini wants a 2 percent sales tax on alcohol bought from distributors. That means Anchorage bars and liquor stores would pay more when ordering alcohol. The higher cost is generally passed on to customers at the bar or register.

Revenue from the tax, if put on the city's 2018 ballot and approved by voters, would be dedicated to "financing alcohol and/or drug treatment, emergency transportation, public safety purposes related to detrimental primary and secondary effects of alcohol or drug abuse, and housing programs, including housing programs for chronic inebriates," according to Traini's proposal. The Assembly could raise the tax up to 6 percent over time.

"I keep getting calls from people saying, 'We've got to do something about alcoholism,' " said Traini, who said he does not drink alcohol.

Traini's measure will be introduced at the Assembly meeting on Tuesday, where the Assembly is also slated to hold a public hearing on a 10-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax proposal from Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. City officials have been looking for ways to raise revenue for city services other than by hiking property taxes.

Traini isn't shy about tax proposals. But his biggest challenge has been getting his ideas past his Assembly colleagues.

Several Assembly members said Tuesday that they weren't totally opposed to the alcohol tax idea, but had to look at the details. Assemblyman John Weddleton of South Anchorage said he also wanted to hear public reaction.


"I am nervous about a special tax on a special brand of business that isn't responsible for all the ills of society," Weddleton said.

Traini has tried at least twice to pass an alcohol tax: first in 1994 and then in 2015, with the help of then-Assemblyman Ernie Hall. The most recent measure, which also sought to dedicate money to alcohol and drug treatment, drew fierce criticism from local bar owners and members of the liquor industry. Traini's Assembly colleagues eventually killed the the proposal, averting what appeared to be a big political fight.

To build his proposals, Traini has consulted with members of a coalition of churches known as Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together, or AFACT. The organization has held meetings in recent years to draw attention to a lack of treatment beds for people who are suffering from alcohol withdrawal.

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Traini said he has not spoken with the local chapter of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, which represents bar owners. Anchorage alcohol retailers already pay a state tax on alcohol, which amounts to $12.80 for a gallon of liquor, $2.50 for a gallon of wine and about $1 for a gallon of beer.

Kirsten Myles, the director of Cook Inlet CHARR, said her organization plans to oppose Traini's proposal. She said raising the cost of alcohol disproportionately punishes responsible drinkers and doesn't curb alcohol use.

The statewide alcohol retailers association supported more state money for alcohol treatment and rehabilitation several years ago, Myles said, but that budget was still cut. She questioned whether the city would actually use its tax money for alcohol and drug abuse treatment and services.

"What is the plan for the revenue that's going to be collected?" Myles said.

Traini hasn't offered specifics in his proposal. But he noted the city, unlike the state, is allowed to dedicate revenue to specific purposes. He said he intended to watch the budget and show where the money was going.

He said his measure is an example of efforts in communities around Alaska to examine new or higher local taxes in response to cutbacks in state government. Some of those tax proposals have been introduced specifically to cope with rising costs associated with alcohol and drug abuse.

Those proposals have yielded mixed results. In early October, voters in Bethel supported raising the city's existing alcohol sales tax from 12 percent to 15 percent. But voters in Unalaska, in an election held the same day, defeated a sales tax hike on alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.

Anchorage passed a marijuana sales tax in 2016, which Traini sponsored. Other recent local tax proposals — including a general sales tax and a boost to the city bed tax — died in the Assembly.

Traini said he hopes it will be different for the alcohol tax. He needs two-thirds of the 11 votes to put it on the ballot. "It's a different Assembly," he said.

Traini's alcohol tax proposal also asks voters to approve a one-time exception from the city charter, which is like the city's constitution. City charter says sales taxes need 60 percent approval from voters, but Traini's measure calls for a simple majority.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.