STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 22, 2001 ... For Dracut state Rep.
Colleen Garry, deciding whether to apply the 5 percent sales tax to beer, wine and liquor purchased from
Massachusetts package stores isn't a tough choice. Not when, as planned, the
resulting $55 million will be used to treat addiction.
"This is a disease," Garry, fighting back tears, told
Taxation and Public Safety committee members Tuesday morning. "We don't turn around and criticize people for having cancer
and other diseases."
Garry broke down as she told stories involving a three-year-old who hid in a closet from an
abusive, alcoholic father, a 36-year-old mother of four who died from a pain
killer overdose, and a 15-year-old whose working father left him in charge of making sure his alcoholic
mother didn't drink more than one glass of wine. "This is a very personal issue to
me," Garry told her colleagues in Gardner Auditorium.
Garry and other Democrats on Beacon Hill are behind what is
becoming a serious effort to lift the sales tax exemption on alcohol. Richard Shire, public policy liaison for the
Massachusetts chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is already predicting the tax hike
bill, which has languished for five years, will clear the House and Senate this year, forcing
a promised veto by Acting Gov. Jane Swift.
"This is the first year they've finally realized that 'Yeah,
this is something we're going to do,'" he said. "My gut feeling is this is going to pass in both chambers. The question is, are
there going to be enough votes to override a veto. We've got to work on Swift. Our problem is
going to be with the governor."
Shire said the acting governor and MADD are in agreement on
a range of public safety, licensing and drunk driving bills, but acknowledged that the
no-new-taxes pledge Swift took,
following her Republican predecessors, William Weld and Paul Cellucci, is a formidable
"She's taken that armor on," said Shire. "Will she change? I
On April 17, Swift, having just taken over the Corner Office
from Cellucci, proposed a tax cut that would help the working poor and signed a pledge promising her "vehement"
opposition to new or higher taxes. Swift's rationale is simple: cutting taxes
helps the economy and raising taxes hurts it.
Members of the package store, and beer, wine and liquor
industries are counting on Swift to uphold that pledge. David Wojnar, regional vice president of the Distilled Spirits
Council of the United States, says the legislation proposes an "unfair solution," singles out one industry
and penalizes consumers. Wojnar added that half the purchase price of "a
typical bottle of spirits" already pays for a tax of some kind.
"Responsible consumption of distilled spirits, beer or wine
is a socially acceptable part of a normal, healthy adult lifestyle," Wojnar said. "To indict these responsible consumers
and their pocketbooks to pay for illicit drug use and alcohol abuse is not good public policy and is not
in the public interest."
Richard Doyle, CEO of the Boston-based Harpoon Brewery and
chairman of the Brewers Association of America, agreed with Wojnar. Doyle said the price of a six-pack of Harpoon
has risen 8 percent since 1987, from $5.99 to $6.49. An overnight 5 percent increase is too
much, he said. "That's huge," said Doyle. "That's dramatic. It's a very damaging, scary
Doyle also responded to Garry's rhetorical question, "What's
45 cents on a 12 pack?" Said Doyle: "If it's not your business, 45 cents doesn't seem like a lot."
But while opponents of the bill will surely continue to
lobby legislators on the issue, they were outnumbered by supporters today, including Laurie and Caitlin, a pair of
self-described alcoholics who were allowed to testify anonymously. Both said treatment is the only reason
they're alive today.
Caitlin described herself as a "normal kid" active in school
programs and who picked up her first drink at the age of 10. At 19, she's been sober for almost four years now. She told
lawmakers her parents bought her brother a car and an apartment after his high school
graduation, but told her she wouldn't be getting the same because they'd spent so much on
her addiction treatment. "But that's okay," Caitlin told lawmakers. "Because
I'm alive and I'm here."
Laurie, a middle-aged teacher, said she quit drinking in
1989. "I was fortunate to realize I can't drink," she said. "I am an alcoholic. When I drink, I can't stop drinking." She said
she is driven to push for increased alcohol education because her four-year-old niece was killed
"by a man who drank all day." The young girl, she said, was buried with Beanie Babies
lining her casket. "I think the whole thing is education," Laurie said. "Education is what takes the
Shire, of MADD, said the state already collects about $60
million in alcohol-related taxes but the money is funneled into the General Fund, which pays for general government
services. When Shire suggested that lawmakers earmark that money for addiction treatment
and education, Taxation Committee co-chairwoman Sen. Marian Walsh (D-W. Roxbury)
encouraged him to stick to the matter at hand.
Walsh, who is pushing separately to raise the cigarette tax,
is the chief sponsor of the alcohol tax hike bill, S611. She says 43 states and the District of Columbia have a sales tax on
liquor, wine or beer for off-premises consumption. The tax hike, she says, will raise $55
million a year, which would be placed in a new Health Protection Fund and spent on
substance abuse treatment and education.
Citing a National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at
Columbia University estimate, Walsh said Massachusetts agencies and service providers spent almost $3 billion in
1998 "due to the destruction caused by substance abuse." That's about $441
per person, Walsh said.
Garry said the state, through its taxpayers, is already
spending heavily on alcohol-related incarceration, child abuse, medical treatment, and the high costs of social services and
criminal justice programs. "We're already paying," Garry said.
Former Public Health Commissioner David Mulligan, who served
under Govs. Michael Dukakis and William Weld, also spoke in favor of the bill, saying waiting lists have grown
since 1987. The prevailing attitude since then, Mulligan said, is: "If people have problems, it's
their problem and we will punish them if they cross certain lines."