Opinions

Alcohol tax should be a flop again

It must be a weird genetic aberration of some sort that prevents folks in public office from grasping the simple concept of no, nyet, nein, uh-uh when it comes to resurrecting failed ballot questions.

When such questions tank at the polls, it does not mean, “Aw shucks, people are too stupid to know what is good for them. Let’s have them vote until we get what we want.” It means move on.

A case in point? The tired, recycled 5% retail alcohol tax rushed onto the April 7 ballot. It is, for all intents and purposes, the same proposed retail alcohol levy put on the April 2 ballot last year - and resoundingly slapped down by voters, 54%-46%.

Remarkably, some Assembly members wanted the tax so badly last year they even offered to bribe the hospitality industry, promising longer bar hours if it would sit down and shut up. This time around, backers have enlisted former Anchorage mayor and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and his Northern Compass Group to navigate the pitfalls.

This most recent levy was proposed by Assembly Chairman Felix Rivera and members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar. It would not offset property taxes while pumping $15 million or so into city coffers. That equates to even more spending in a city with final operating budgets that have climbed from $482.5 million in 2015, when Mayor Ethan Berkowitz took office on July 1, to a pending $529.9 million operating budget this year. That is a $47.4 million jump.

Also this time, backers claim they have tightened the ordinance’s language, but despite that assertion, there remains a lot of wiggle room for use of the tax revenue. Backers also have inserted language they say requires voters’ approval to increase the tax or change how it is used.

Mind you, all of that is from a money-hungry Assembly that has attempted enough end-runs around the voter-approved tax cap - even attempting to change the tax cap’s calculation at one point - to make any NFL running back proud.

After weeks of spirited debate, only Assembly members John Weddleton and Crystal Kennedy voted this time against putting the question back on the ballot.

But there is more than just the tax to consider April 7. Passage would require setting aside the city charter’s Bill of Rights, which provides us all with “immunity from sales taxes, except upon approval by three-fifths (3/5) of the qualified voters voting on the question.” To dodge that almost insurmountable charter requirement, the Assembly - again - wants voters to approve a one-time-only, simple-majority-vote exemption, such as the one it wangled in the proposed sale of the Municipal Light and Power utility to Chugach Electric.

Despite their stick-to-itiveness, alcohol tax backers face an uphill battle. Sales taxes are as popular as scabies in Anchorage. Voters have rejected such taxes several times over the years. Voters finally grew so vexed at the incessant pushes for such levies that in 1997 they enacted the charter’s supermajority requirement we all are being asked to ignore.

Like others before it, this proposed tax should flop at the polls, just as it did last year. It was rushed onto April’s ballot, and even Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel conceded: ”It’s just too fast for something which could be such a game changer for Anchorage.” Then, inexplicably, she voted for it.

The general language of the ordinance leaves a lot of room for politicians bent on spending, and it unfairly taps one segment of Anchorage for taxes to address community-wide issues. Why does - why should - everybody else in the city get a pass? How did reasonable, law-abiding people who like a beer now and again become responsible for the city’s woes and easy targets for another regressive “sin” tax. Such taxes are low-hanging fruit for politicians looking for more money and have little-to-no effect on those who are the problem.

An unexpected benefit is that voters being asked to approve the tax retread will be able to cast ballots for some of its architects.

Five of the nine Assembly members who decided to put the issue on the ballot – yet again – are up for re-election on the April ballot. They include: Christopher Constant; Austin Quinn-Davidson; Felix Rivera; Pete Petersen; and, Suzanne LaFrance. Quinn-Davidson and Rivera, in fact, are two of the three tax sponsors.

It is time to tell the Assembly: Enough! How many times must voters say no? It is an unfair levy. It is, on its face, designed to punish. How many times will we have to tell our betters no, nyet, nein, uh-uh when it comes to failed ballot questions?

To paraphrase opponents of the tax: No - in any language - really does mean no.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications. The views expressed here are his own.

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