The battle over a municipal alcohol tax is not new. In seven Assembly efforts and two citizen initiatives since 1984, the idea of a local tax on the intoxicant has come forward. Each time, it has failed — sometimes before reaching voters, in the case of Assembly ordinances, and sometimes at the ballot box, for the initiatives. But there’s no question that Anchorage today is a different place than it was even a year ago, to say nothing of 20 or 30 years in the past. The Assembly should let local voters decide whether a local alcohol tax is a good way to pay for homelessness services.
As recently as last year, efforts to put forth a municipal alcohol tax to voters failed at the Assembly level by a wide margin. None of the Assembly efforts to put a tax on the ballot have passed muster; only the initiatives saw a public vote. Most recently, Assemblyman Dick Traini proposed a 2 percent wholesale tax on alcohol, which failed to make the ballot after a 3-7 Assembly vote.
This year’s proposal is different in several respects. Perhaps most importantly, it isn’t taxation solely for the sake of increased revenue. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s proposal would dedicate money raised by the tax to a fund that would provide services related to alcoholism and homelessness: substance abuse treatment, illegal camp cleanup, housing and expanding the Anchorage Safety Patrol.
The tax proposal would also be applied to retail sales of alcohol, not wholesale. Anchorage would not be alone if it adopted such a tax; the city of Fairbanks has a similar 5 percent tax and Juneau has a 3 percent alcohol tax in addition to a 5 percent sales tax.
Certainly, there is ample reason to view proposals that increase the tax burden on residents with a critical eye. Letting government grow unchecked is bad policy. But in this case, the funds being raised would go toward a clearly identified area of need, and one that alcohol abuse exacerbates. Ask representatives of nonprofits what issues contribute to homelessness, and alcohol will be near the top of the list.
It’s entirely possible that Anchorage voters won’t be keen on the tax. But it’s worth forwarding to the ballot. The tax proposal is a serious attempt to address one of Anchorage’s most visible issues, and the city has few other options to raise additional money needed to address the problem effectively. Given that the state is itself facing a substantial budget gap, there is little hope that funds will come from Juneau to help address homelessness here. If we’re looking to press forward with the municipal plan to reduce homelessness, we’ll have to pay our own way.
Between now and April, there will be plenty of time for voters to make up their minds on whether a local alcohol tax is the best vehicle to help address homelessness services. But the Assembly should let the people make that choice themselves.
The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O’Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.