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Anchorage Assembly to take another run at alcohol tax

  • Author: Aubrey Wieber
  • Updated: December 10, 2019
  • Published December 9, 2019

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For the ninth time since 1984, a plan to impose a local tax on alcohol is brewing in Anchorage.

It’s a renewed attempt on the heels of a ballot proposal that failed in April, with 53% of voters turning down a 5% tax that would go toward combating homelessness. That was the only attempt to reach the ballot.

The latest movement is being brought by Assembly members Felix Rivera, Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar. In many ways it mirrors the last version. Again, it will be a 5% tax, projected to raise about $11 to $15 million per year.

The tax impact would range from 40 cents on an $8 six-pack of beer to $2.50 on a $50 bottle of liquor.

However, this time, the money would be allocated more specifically. If passed, the money could only be used to fund police and first responders; combat child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence; and fund substance abuse treatment, mental and behavioral health programs and to address homelessness.

Rivera and Quinn-Davidson said they relied on issues raised to the Assembly in tailoring this ordinance.

“All together, I think those are three areas that we need a lot more resources for,” Rivera said.

Rivera said there was concern from the public that the measure that went before the voters in April was too loose. This money is safe-guarded for the outlined purposes, he said. If the Assembly wanted to use the money for public transit, for example, they would have to get voter approval, he said.

They plan to introduce it at the Dec. 17 regular Assembly meeting. It’s scheduled for a public hearing and deliberation on Jan. 14. If it gets at least eight of the 11 Assembly members’ votes, it will appear on the April 7 ballot.

Anchorage’s charter states new sales taxes need approval of three-fifths of voters. However, Rivera and Quinn-Davidson said the ballot language will ask voters to change the requirement for this tax to allow a simple majority. The April measure included the same clause.

The tax failed in April in large part to a hearty opposition, led by members of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. The alcohol industry raised more than $300,000 to outspend the pro-tax group 10-fold.

Quinn-Davidson and Rivera said when they heard concerns about the tax from the public, it was often due to claims put out by Alaska CHARR and other Alcohol partners.

“When people were unsure of it last year, it seemed that there was misinformation,” Quinn-Davidson said.

Sarah Oates, president of Alaska CHARR, did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Rivera and Quinn-Davidson said a more robust public education campaign will be the deciding factor in 2020. This time around, they will have to be more competitive with industry in funding the campaign.

“The alcohol industry will raise significant out of state money to combat this local initiative,” Rivera said.

Like last time, the pro-tax side will lean on Recover Alaska, a group that seeks to reduce harm caused by alcohol, for the public outreach portion.

Recover’s executive director, Tiffany Hall, said she’s already started working on that.

“We have been talking to people, and I have a couple commitments, but they are pretty tentative," she said.

As the election nears, she will ask the Assembly to keep the initiative off the ballot if the funds aren’t there to mount a real campaign. She needs about $175,000 just to give it a shot, she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported that the Anchorage charter states a three-fifths majority is needed for a tax increase. A three-fifths majority is needed for a new sales tax.

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