Raising the alcohol tax is long overdue -- and would help our most vulnerable citizens

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By Stephen Morgan

Once again this year, Maryland legislators are debating an increase in the state’s alcohol tax in what has become an annual ritual in Annapolis.

The basic facts in this debate have changed little since it began nearly a decade ago:

• The last time Maryland increased the tax on alcohol was in 1955 for distilled spirits and 1972 for beer and wine. That tax currently amounts to about a cent a drink for beer and two cents for wine and distilled spirits – rates that are among the lowest in the nation.

• Even during times of economic growth, services and programs for persons with developmental disabilities have been drastically underfunded. These individuals need basic services, from in-home support and employment programs to respite care and transportation, in order to remain with their families and in their communities. The waiting list for these essential services has now grown to nearly 19,000 citizens, including individuals from every jurisdiction in Maryland.

• The community-based developmental disabilities system has also been chronically under-funded, resulting in difficulty retaining a stable, direct support workforce and quality services. Support workers help individuals with developmental disabilities live independently in their own homes, assist with personal care (i.e. bathing and dressing), ensure health and safety, and provide assistance with medications. The average salary for community-based direct support staff, however, is well below that of a high school graduate.

• Raising the tax on alcohol from its current level to 5 cents to 10 cents per drink will generate more than $200 million for the state – money that can help to provide services for people with developmental disabilities.

These facts are indisputable. Complicating this picture, however, is an economy which is easily the worst the state and the nation have experienced since the Great Depression. Maryland’s fiscal posture is not good, leading to continued concerns over the need for new rounds of budget cuts to state programs and services. Should those budget cuts occur, the already fragile system that provides for people with developmental disabilities would be stressed to the breaking point.

The alcohol and restaurant industries admittedly have not been immune to these economic doldrums. Tavern owners and other small employers worry that an increase in Maryland’s alcohol tax at this time could hurt their businesses and force patrons to drive to neighboring states – which ironically already have higher alcohol taxes – to purchase alcohol.

Despite the liquor lobby and the public’s distaste for higher taxes, polls show that 83% of Marylanders would, in fact, support an alcohol tax if the proceeds were designated to increasing funding for developmental disabilities and other alcohol-related health initiatives.

A recent report indicates that raising the alcohol tax 10 cents per drink would result in nearly 15,000 fewer cases of alcohol dependency. The report, by Hopkins School of Public Health, cites dozens of studies nationwide which show that whenever states raise the tax on alcohol, excessive drinking declines. Moreover, higher alcohol taxes have a direct impact on underage drinking.

This fact should not go unnoticed in a state where one out of four high school age students admit to being binge drinkers. So while tavern owners complain that higher alcohol taxes will hurt their bottom lines, the positive impact those taxes would have on curbing alcohol abuse – and assisting the developmentally disabled community – would seem to far outweigh any negative repercussions.

Undoubtedly, lawmakers dislike voting in favor of tax increases, particularly in an election year. But this is an issue that can no longer be ignored.

Imagine for a second the following very real scenarios: The 80-year-old mother of a 60-year-old severely disabled man who is no longer able to move him to the toilet or the bathtub – on the waiting list for years with no relief in sight. The mother of two children with developmental disabilities, one of whom requires her to perform one-one-one therapy each day, is told she must wait for the daily two hour in-home support she so desperately needs.

Now imagine paying a dime more for a glass of wine, a gin and tonic, or a draft beer to help these families. It shouldn’t be a tough choice. On a per capita basis, Maryland’s alcohol tax is second lowest in the nation. This increase in Maryland’s excise tax on alcoholic beverages would generate millions each year that would bring people off the waiting list.

While the temperament for such tax increases is less than lukewarm in Annapolis, it’s clear the alcohol tax would have a huge positive impact on some of our most vulnerable citizens. In addition, individuals and families suffering from drug and alcohol abuse would have increased access to services for needed programs.

Some would argue that we can ill afford to raise taxes in these tough economic times. Providing additional funding to address these unmet needs, however, is an investment in healthy, safe, thriving communities, as well as a safeguard for the next generation of Marylanders.

Stephen Morgan is Executive Director of The ARC of Baltimore.
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