Mass. Voters Keep Sales Tax, But Repeal It On Alcohol

BOSTON — Correction appended — Massachusetts voters are putting the alcohol sales tax down the drain. They voted narrowly to repeal the year-old sales tax on store-bought alcohol.  But they stopped short of cutting the general sales tax and they also shot down a proposal to repeal the state’s affording housing requirement.

In the run up to Election Day, it seemed like such a good climate for anti-tax, anti-regulation ballot initiatives. There were frustrated voters out there, like Eileen Connor of Hyde Park, who’s been out of work for a year and a half.

“Even people that are working can’t afford to buy what they used to buy!” Connor said.

That sentiment helped kill the state sales tax on store-bought alcohol. Liquor distributors and package stores put the question on the ballot. Their spokeswoman, P.J. Foster, said pocketbooks made the difference at the polls.

“Consumers were feeling that,” Foster said. “When they saw Question 1 on the ballot it was their opportunity to regain a little bit of that income.”

Passing Question 1 means Massachusetts is getting rid of the sales tax on alcohol after only a year.  Even Prohibition lasted longer. Now the state will lose about $110 million in revenue next year.

But the state won’t lose $2.5 billion. That’s what it would have lost had Question 3 passed. Voters did not go ahead and slash the general sales tax to 3 percent.

“That’s about what I would expect for Massachusetts,” said John Bayle from Marlborough, who was among the disappointed supporters who’d gathered at a British pub in Framingham last night. 

Passing Question 1 means Massachusetts is getting rid of the sales tax on alcohol after only a year.

Carla Howell, the libertarian who keeps putting anti-tax measures on the ballot, said Question 3 gained ground.

“In 2002, we got 885,000 votes,” Howell said. “Two years ago we did another statewide ballot initiative, we had 915,000 votes. We appear to be on track for 1 million or more votes this election. So we’re moving in the right direction.”

Actually she fell just short of 1 million votes, but the main thing is, more people voted against Question 3.

“Once people started looking at what it actually pays for — education, public safety, roads and bridges, our community hospitals — Massachusetts voters decided it wasn’t for them,” said Toby McGrath, the spokesman for the opponents’ campaign, which was successful in keeping the state sales tax at 6.25 percent.

To help voters decide it wasn’t for them, McGrath’s coalition of public sector unions spent $4 million. They outspent Carla Howell’s group by about 16-1.

Advocates of ballot Question 2 had hoped to repeal the state’s affordable housing law. They lost handily.

“Voters overwhelmingly decided that we need to keep this law on the books and keep creating affordable housing,” said Question 2 opponent Francy Ronayne.

So despite the tough economy, in the end Massachusetts voters decided they’re still willing to pay taxes and back affordable housing. They just need a drink — and they want that drink tax-free.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said developers had hoped to repeal the state’s affordable housing law, known as 40B. However, most developers opposed Question 2. While developers are required by the law to offer units at below-market rate, 40B gives them some zoning flexibility in exchange.


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  • David P. Ryel

    Do your homework and get your facts straight WBUR! Even with the repeal of the state sales tax on beer, wine and spirits, alcohol is certainly NOT TAX FREE. The underlying excise tax at the distributor level accounts for up to 40% of the cost that you pay for alcohol in retail stores.

  • Mei-Lin Po

    If the tax cut had been, say, back to 5% instead of all the way down to 3%, I *might* have considered it. Maybe.

  • Llaen

    The alcohol tax helps fund treatment programs for alcohol dependence. Many programs that help people who are struggling to quit drinking, or maintain their recovery will now be hit hard.

  • cdub

    Get your facts right. Developers did not want to repeal 40B. Most construction related organizations sent literature to their members to keep 40B in place. 40B only makes developers set aside housing as affordable, if they chose to proceed under 40B. It is completely voluntary. It actually allows developers to avoid having to comply with local zoning by-laws and allows for a more streamlined permitting process, not a more convoluted one. Do your research before you write an article and distort the facts.

  • http://WBUR jelun

    Sorry, David, it may be what YOU pay at the retail level. Both the person quoted in the article and you are mistaken. There is another choice. Don’t buy the foul stuff.
    I seriously get a charge out of the people who think that people who are hurting economically should save an extra few dollars on their alcohol purchases.
    If they are having a hard time paying the rent or buying food… filling their gas tanks, maybe they should buy LESS alcohol rather than worrying about paying less tax when they do.

  • tom doering

    How is it possible that you actually wrote this article?? I certainly hope you are not paid for this rubbish! Do some fact checking, get off your rear end and do your job!! This is very lazy reporting!! Did you interview any developers at all?? What did they say? Why did they say it? Where is it in the article? Don’t you know that alcohol is already taxed at the sales tax level, and that what was repealed last night was the additional excise tax. (double taxation) My gosh, what a horrible job! You need to submit a correction to this article!

  • mike

    I agree that alchohol is not neccesity but double taxing is not an option either. Go around US, many other states sell it for lot less that Mass. Why nobody talk about Mcdonald. Nothing but a fat and because of that more health problem ends up paying high health insurance. I have seen people (visitors) from other state bring their own booz so they don’t have to spent more here.

  • deb

    “McGrath’s coalition of public sector unions spent $4 million.”
    That says it all.

  • http://www.wbur.org/people/cnickisch Curt Nickisch

    Tom, please see the correction above. However, it’s not true to say the excise tax was repealed. It wasn’t – the sales tax on alcohol was repealed. That goes into effect January 1 (too late for those popping champagne corks!).

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