CHEYENNE – A bill that would have essentially doubled the state’s excise tax on alcohol in order to provide more funding for substance use treatment programs was rejected by lawmakers during a committee meeting Wednesday.
The bill would have brought in slightly more than $2 million annually to the state, with the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health evenly splitting the funds for various mental health and substance use programs.
But members of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee rejected the bill, which would’ve changed the excise tax for the first time since 1935, by a 7-6 vote.
“We don’t need to be taxing one group of people,” Rep. Clarence Styvar, R-Cheyenne, said. “I said it last year when they tried to raise the tobacco tax, and I feel the same way about this: No new taxes.”
Mike Moser, spokesman for the Wyoming State Liquor Association, said the tax was unfair for those who drink safely.
“We’re asking responsible consumers of alcohol, the vast majority, to back the law and force them to pay for people with mental health issues ... and substance abuse treatment, when so many of these substance abuse cases don’t have anything to do with alcohol,” Moser said.
Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, argued the bill would send a message from the state that alcohol is bad.
“How can the government be the one that sells the alcohol, then comes back and takes the tax, as well ... that’s almost delivering the problem and then having the solution,” Bouchard said.
Bouchard agreed with Moser’s suggestion for the Legislature to use existing funds generated by the Wyoming Liquor Division, instead of implementing a tax increase.
“I think we’ve determined there’s a lot of money sitting in the pot already,” Bouchard said. “Why doesn’t it come out of there?”
“We’re going to get to a point in this state where we tell our people, ‘go live somewhere else,’” he continued. “You put up with the wind and the snow and the bad weather, and we just find another reason to tax you.”
Yet others felt the problem would remain intractable without more funding. Andrea Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, noted Wyoming’s high suicide rates as evidence of the continuing substance problems facing Wyoming.
“Alcohol is still the number one substance use disorder that’s diagnosed in the United States,” Summerville said.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, who spearheaded the bill, said it aimed to address the risk associated with drinking alcohol, citing a statistic that 8% of people who drink alcohol eventually seek treatment.
“We decided as a society almost 90 years ago when we repealed Prohibition that that was a risk that our society was willing to run,” Scott said. “But it is still a risk, and somebody has to pay for the problems of picking up the pieces when somebody is on the losing side of that risk.”
Other committee members worried the roughly $2 million generated by the tax increase could cause the Joint Appropriations Committee to divert other funding for substance use programs toward other areas.
“There’s absolutely no guarantee ... that this tax would actually end up increasing the money going to substance abuse at all, other than what we hope is the goodwill of the Appropriations Committee,” said Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, who co-chairs the Labor Committee and voted against the increase.
Without the bill, committee members could to go to the Appropriations Committee to request additional funding for treatment, though Scott admitted that would be an uphill battle.
“With the current situation, I think if we go to the Appropriations Committee for general funds, the answer is going to be no,” Scott said. “Whether we do it by earmarking that’s already there or just asking for a general fund appropriation, I don’t think it makes a lot of difference.”