Whoever is governor of Idaho after Jan. 1 and whatever the composition of the 61st Legislature, it’s likely that the issue of raising beer and wine taxes will be back. The reason is simple: The state badly needs the additional revenue such tax increases would supply to support the substance-abuse programs that keep people out of prison.
Because of cutbacks in state funding related to the Great Recession, the Idaho Department of Correction is running on fumes. There are no good options if the state’s inmate population increases significantly over the next few years.
Idaho’s 15 cents-a-gallon excise tax on beer hasn’t been raised since 1961 — Robert Smylie was the governor at the time, John Kennedy the president — and the wine tax has been at 45 cents a gallon for 39 years.
It’s stayed that way mostly because of the political skills of the industry’s lobbyist, Bill Roden, and the ability of retailers, distributors and bar and restaurant owners to put pressure on legislators at the local level.
In terms of equity and need, an increase in the two taxes is long overdue. But there may be other good reasons to raise it as well.
The accompanying table lists the beer taxes for every state and compares them with the percentage of drivers in each state who, in the estimate of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, have driven drunk at least once a year.
The three states with the highest beer taxes — Alaska, Hawaii and South Carolina — rank 34th, 17th and 48th out of the 50 states in the percentage of drunk drivers.
The three states with the lowest beer taxes — Wyoming, Missouri and Wisconsin — rank 11th, 12th and first in the percentage of drunk drivers.
In the 10 states with the lowest percentage of drunk drivers, the average beer tax is 30 cents a gallon. In the 10 with the highest percentage, the average beer tax is 16.8 cents a gallon.
North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana and New Hampshire have the highest percentages of underage drinkers, according to the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The beer tax in those five states averages 18.6 cents a gallon.
In Utah, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia — the states with the lowest percentage of underage drinkers -the average beer tax is 41.3 cents a gallon.
North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa and Wisconsin are the five states with the highest percentage of underage binge drinkers, according to the same survey. The beer tax in those states averages 16.4 cents a gallon.
In Tennessee, Utah, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina — the states with the smallest percentage of underage binge drinkers — the beer tax averages 56.7 cents a gallon.
Does that mean that cheaper beer is responsible for more drunk driving and underage drinking? Not in itself.
But there’s evidence that it’s a factor.
If and when Idaho raises its beer and wine taxes, it will be primarily to help pay for the consequences of alcohol abuse.
But along the way, it might save a few other lives.