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Beer tax benefits budget, health

The state budget crisis has caused intense hardship for tens of thousands of Oregon's most vulnerable citizens and has left our social safety net in tatters. Meanwhile, the costs to taxpayers for health and public safety problems related to alcohol abuse continue to grow.

One solution to both problems is to increase the state's existing excise tax on beer. Frozen since 1977 at three-quarters of a penny per 12-ounce container, the tax ranks as one of the nation's lowest and lags far behind inflation.

Beer is the alcoholic beverage of choice in Oregon, a state known for its craft brewing. Most beer sold in Oregon, however, comes from big out-of-state brewers. These multinational corporations spend millions on advertising that reaches young people and legal drinkers alike. While they don't hesitate to raise their prices to keep profits up, these corporate giants cry foul at a modest yet long-overdue tax adjustment that would require them to pay their fair share of the human, social and economic cost of their products.

Today, individual Oregon taxpayers shoulder most of that tremendous cost. At its current rate, the tax covers less than 1 percent of the massive public bill for abuse and addiction in Oregon Ñ a cost for which alcohol is largely responsible.

Polls reveal strong citizen support for a tax increase on alcohol. Four recent independent surveys show public approval at 70 percent or more, if the resulting money pays for prevention and treatment programs and helps reduce the state's budget shortfall. In recent months, citizens have submitted scores of petitions asking elected officials to increase Oregon's alcohol tax.

Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield, and I have offered our own proposal, House Bill 3258, which would raise an estimated $120 million every two years by raising the beer tax by 7 cents per 12-ounce container and the wine tax by 15 cents per fifth. That's about 35 cents per six-pack.

The bill would enable Oregon to capture federal matching funds and restart the state's medically needy program, which provided prescription drugs for thousands of low-income and elderly Oregonians before it all but disappeared thanks to recent budget cuts. The bill also would generate money to pay for local public health programs that prevent and treat mental illness and addiction to alcohol and drugs. These are important, effective programs that save lives while heading off more expensive problems in the future. They are the kind of programs that help keep Oregon livable.

Our legislation includes an exemption that protects small producers, including craft breweries and wineries, from the brunt of the tax, which the state would levy at the wholesale level.

A recent story in The New York Times reported that the alcohol industry can expect good times for years to come despite a faltering economy, as more children of baby boomers reach legal drinking age. Oregon is among several states considering alcohol tax increases as a sustainable revenue stream. Such a step would not address our entire fiscal crisis, but it represents one part of an effective, long-range solution that leads to a healthier and safer Oregon.

Corporate beer conglomerates may object. But it's unfair to ask individual taxpayers to foot the whole bill for the costs of alcohol abuse. It's time to make the producers part of the solution.

Jackie Dingfelder is serving her second term in the Oregon House of Representatives. Previously, she served as watershed program manager at For the Sake of the Salmon. Dingfelder lives in Northeast Portland with her husband, Tom.