Governor, lawmakers debate beer tax

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(Host) Democratic leaders in the Vermont Senate want to raise taxes on alcohol to expand the state’s substance abuse programs. But Governor Jim Douglas says major improvements can be made without raising taxes.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) For months, some Democratic senators have pushed for a tax increase on beer, wine and hard liquor to fund drug treatment and prevention efforts. But now as the Legislature nears its final weeks, Senate Democrats have stepped up the pressure. They unveiled a plan that calls for a mix of tougher enforcement and new treatment options.

The proposal supports outpatient centers, expanded residential programs, three drug courts, stiffer penalties for drug traffickers, and six new state troopers. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille County), the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, says the rise in heroin use demands a far-reaching response:

(Bartlett) “This problem is so large that we finally decided that what we needed to do was a comprehensive package. So starting with law enforcement, better laws, education and comprehensive treatment.”

(Dillon) The money to pay for this – about five million dollars – would come from higher taxes on alcohol, as well as a 1% increase in the rooms and meals tax.

Governor Jim Douglas has his own drug enforcement and treatment plan that’s working its way through the Legislature. The governor says his proposal greatly improves the state’s anti-drug efforts, without raising new taxes.

(Douglas) “All these senators who now think my plan doesn’t go far enough have been here for a number of years. They’ve had more than adequate opportunity to make the proposals they are advancing today. A year ago this month I advanced the most comprehensive and extensive and well funded program that I can recall in the history of this state. I’m delighted that the senators are on board now and perhaps the state would have benefited from their leadership in past years.”

(Dillon) Douglas insists that the state doesn’t need to raise taxes to pay for the plan. But Peter Welch, the Senate president pro tempore, says the governor’s proposal shuffles money around from existing programs.

(Welch) “The difference between the program we’re presenting today and the governor’s, frankly, is funding and it’s more comprehensive. It doesn’t take resources from existing treatment programs and put it into another program that’s relabeled. So the bottom line here on the presentation is that this is a real problem, that requires real resources and a real and a comprehensive commitment.”

(Dillon) The Senate plan to raise alcohol taxes comes on top of a separate proposal to tax beer to pay for school funding. The school funding plan would apply the 6% sales tax to beer. The Senate drug treatment proposal would raise taxes by an additional two cents per bottle.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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