Legislators Re-introduce Beer Tax Proposal
Madison – Rep. Terese Berceau (D–Madison) and Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) announced at a Capitol press conference Wednesday they are re-introducing their proposal to raise Wisconsin's beer tax, with the additional revenue used to combat drunk driving and fund alcohol-abuse prevention and treatment programs.
The lawmakers were joined by members of AWARE (All-Wisconsin Alcohol Risk Education), a coalition coordinated by UW Health in November that currently has more than 50 health, law enforcement, civic and insurance groups as members.
The Berceau/Risser bill would raise the tax on beer by two and one-half cents per bottle. Berceau explained that alcohol abuse and drunk driving cost Wisconsin more than $935 million annually in medical costs alone.
"We are talking pennies per beer to help with this effort," Berceau stated. "We can pass all of the laws we want, and put more people in jail and prison, but that doesn't really solve the root problem. Just this past weekend Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch noted there are significant waiting lists for inmates who need to get into alcohol treatment programs. We need education, screening, enforcement and treatment. And we need a way to pay for these efforts. We cannot continue to enable problem drinking by ignoring it."
Senator Risser noted that the beer tax has not increased for 40 years.
"People from all over the state are calling and e-mailing elected officials, asking for more resources for law enforcement and treatment,'' Risser said. "As a recent UW survey showed, people aren't as opposed to this tax as the beer industry would have us think. They know we have a serious problem and know this proposal can be one part of the solution."
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk has been encouraged by the response to her county-wide coalition to fight abusive drinking.
"Excess drinking takes an enormous financial and human toll on our citizens," Falk said. "Increasing the beer tax to hire more prosecutors and police to combat drunk driving and other alcohol-related crimes makes public safety sense; funding for prevention and intervention services is vitally needed."
University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics President and CEO Donna Katen-Bahensky noted the public supports raising the beer tax to deal with these problems. Earlier this spring, UW Health polled about 500 likely Wisconsin voters and found that 58 percent would favor raising the beer tax as long as the increased revenue went to pay for law enforcement aimed at drunken driving, and at preventing and treating alcohol abuse.
"The public support has been overwhelming and we believe Wisconsin residents feel strongly a change is needed," said Katen-Bahensky. "People recognize that society is already paying a high cost for our excessive rates of alcohol abuse. The majority of people are willing to pay a few cents more to help do something about alcohol abuse and drunk driving."
Cindy Harrington, a Madison woman whose life was changed by being hit by a drunk driver in 1977, reminded people that we already pay a high price for our abuse of alcohol.
"I am one of thousands of people who have paid the price for Wisconsin's tolerance of drinking and driving,'' said Harrington. "One day I was a nurse who worked in the intensive care unit. The next day, after being hit by a drunken driver, I was in a coma that lasted for five days. When I awoke, my life had changed forever. I suffered permanent brain injuries, and now have a disability that causes seizures and keeps me from working. So while more enforcement and treatment is expensive, remember that some of us are paying an even higher price due to abusive drinking and driving."
Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney noted that it actually costs less to prevent drunken driving and alcohol abuse.
"Funding education on the effects of alcohol abuse among our young adults is the surest way to prevent the growing numbers of alcohol-related crashes in all our communities," Mahoney said. "It is smarter to spend tax dollars on treatment programs rather than building more correctional institutions. Increasing the beer tax can be supported by both our businesses and our citizens."
Representative Berceau said she is especially grateful for the support she is getting from around the state.
"The university has done yeomen's work organizing the coalition of groups and individuals in its AWARE campaign,'' Berceau said. "Kathleen Falk and the Dane County Coalition to Reduce Alcohol Abuse have done tremendous work. This is definitely a situation in which the people are ahead of their political leaders in terms of being willing to take decisive steps to solve the problems we experience every day from misuse and abuse of alcohol. Now it's time for my colleagues in the legislature to step up to the plate and pass this bill."
Date Published: 04/29/2009