JEFFERSON CITY - Voters could decide whether to nearly triple the state excise tax on some alcohol under legislation heard Tuesday by the House Ways & Means Committee.
More than 75 people packed the hearing room during testimony on the bill. Many, bearing "Penny-a-drink makes a pound of sense" stickers, were there to support the bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Schilling, D-Springfield.
If passed by the General Assembly and approved by voters in a statewide referendum, the beer tax would increase from 6 to 16 cents per gallon; essentially a penny for each 12-ounce glass. Taxes for spirits would increase from $2 to $3 per gallon and wine taxes would increase from 30 to 54 cents per gallon. The tax increase would generate about $21 million in revenue that would be earmarked for use for alcohol prevention and treatment.
"In the state of Missouri, we have a tremendous amount of unmet needs," said Glen Koenen of the Missouri Advisory Council of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
Jay Harms, of the Missouri Youth/Adult Alliance, said there are major drinking problems in the state and additional funds are needed to address them. Alcohol abuse causes untold injuries and expenses, he said.
"All Missouri residents are paying for this problem," Harms said, noting Missouri is below the national average in funding prevention programs.
Missouri's 6 cent-per-gallon beer tax ranks 49th in the country. Hawaii's beer tax, 91 cents, ranks highest, while Wyoming's 2-cent tax is the lowest.
Louise Dehn of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said she supports the bill because it approaches drinking problems before they lead to accidents and "more bricks and mortar" for jail offenders.
John Britton, lobbyist for Anheuser Busch, and Mary Strate of the Missouri Beer Wholesalers Association spoke against the bill.
"Higher taxes will not curb alcohol abuse," Strate said. "Only responsible consumers are really hurt by higher excise taxes."
She said the tax increase would affect the entire alcohol industry, which already pays $28 million a year in taxes. She also questioned why a tax increase is being proposed in a year when Missouri must refund hundreds of millions of dollars because it continues violating the state constitution's revenue limit.
Schilling, a recovering alcoholic, described alcohol abuse as a plague. The tax increase to fund more programs would be minimal, he said.
"Even heavy drinkers wouldn't see a heavy drain on their pocketbooks," he said.