Boston Councilors Seek New Tax On Alcohol

The local sales tax would apply to alcoholic beverages sold at Boston liquor stores and supermarkets, and at bars and restaurants. (Kate Borkowski/Flickr)
The local sales tax would apply to alcoholic beverages sold at Boston liquor stores and supermarkets, and at bars and restaurants. (Kate Borkowski/Flickr)

Two Boston city councilors are proposing a new tax on beer, wine and other alcohol, with the resulting funds to go toward substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

The so-called home rule petition — which will be offered during Wednesday's meeting by Council President Bill Linehan, of South Boston, and Councilor Frank Baker, of Dorchester — would impose a local sales tax of 1 percent to 2 percent on all alcohol sold in the city.

The tax would apply to alcoholic beverages sold at Boston liquor stores and supermarkets, and at bars and restaurants.

Generated revenue would then, per the petition, be used to fund city of Boston substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

Linehan says it'd be a good move for taxpayers.

"Dollar for dollar, it’s the best buy we can get," Linehan told The Boston Globe, which first reported on the proposal Tuesday morning. "Once [people afflicted by addiction] get straightened out, there are no more demands from them for free hospital services, for shelter, for other services. They get jobs and start paying taxes."

Calls to Linehan and Baker by the WBUR Newscast Unit have not been returned.

It's unclear how the City Council would vote on the proposal; a vote isn't expected Wednesday. It's also important to note that a home rule petition, if passed by the council, would need to be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor before going into effect.

In Boston and throughout Massachusetts, alcohol is subject to an excise tax. As the Globe reports:

Alcohol is already subject to an excise tax, and the Legislature passed a state law in 2009 to add a sales tax of 6.25 percent on top of the excise tax. But voters repealed that new sales tax on alcohol, 52 percent to 48 percent, in a statewide referendum in 2010. Proponents had promised to use a portion of the money raised to underwrite treatment programs.

That referendum was placed on the ballot by liquor distributors and package stores, which are opposed to further taxation of alcohol.

"[In 2010], Massachusetts voters repealed the new sales tax on package store transactions. The [Massachusetts Restaurant Association] agrees with Governor [Charlie] Baker that we need to get past the common impulse to solve problems by imposing [tax] hikes on individuals and businesses," the association said in a statement replying to the Boston tax plan.

Councilor Linehan's latest proposal is also not his first stab at the issue.

Last year he sought a 6.25 percent local sales tax that would have just applied to alcohol sold for off-premises consumption. Amid opposition, he dropped the plan. This year's tax proposal has a broader target, as it would apply to on-the-premises consumption as well.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh — who has close ties to the recovery community, in part due to his own struggles with alcoholism — will review the proposal's specifics "if it reaches his desk."

"The Mayor understands the critical need for additional funding for treatment programs in Boston and looks forward to learning more about the proposal during the Council's process, and will review the specific policy if it reaches his desk," according to a statement from his office.

The councilors' proposal also comes amid some upheaval in the city's substance abuse treatment offerings.

When the bridge to Long Island was condemned last fall, Boston's largest shelter — with many substance abuse treatment beds — was also closed, setting off a scramble for replacement services.

According to Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, "more than 85 percent of the people in custody at the Suffolk County House of Correction are there because of some involvement with drugs or alcohol."

Tompkins said in a statement he's "heartened" the council is discussing the topic, "but I need to know more about where the money is going go before I can offer my full support."

This article was originally published on February 24, 2015.

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Ben is WBUR's digital news manager.



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