Linehan, Baker press case for tax hike on alcohol in Boston

In an effort to strengthen his campaign to impose a 2 percent tax on alcohol sold in Boston, City Council President Bill Linehan and City Councillor Frank Baker visited Hope House in Dorchester on Tuesday to outline how revenue from the tax could be used to combat the growing opioid problem in the city. The news conference featured testimonials from recovering addicts and a screening of a promotional video for the tax hike called “20 Cents Makes Sense.”

According to a report released by the state earlier this year, more than 1,000 people died from overdoses of heroin and other opioids in Massachusetts in 2014, a 33 percent increase over opioid deaths in 2012. Of those deaths, 98 occurred in Suffolk County alone, spurring politicians and organizers to call for increased funding to deal with what many see as a growing crisis.

“To combat this disease, we need more resources,” Linehan said on Tuesday. “Boston has been fighting the fight. We have the skills, we don’t have the resources.”

The proposal, introduced to the city council in February, would see that 20 cents of every $10 spent on beer, wine and liquor in the city of Boston would be funneled directly to addiction services, a sum that Linehan said would total $20 million annually. He and Baker said those funds would go directly to prevention, intervention and treatment through Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s new Office of Recovery Services. The city councillors see Boston as the “capital of addiction services” for the state, and hope the new tax would push other municipalities to follow suit with a similar measure.

“This is just the start of the conversation, then maybe the state can get off their ass and do something about it,” said Baker.

But Boston-area voters and state politicians may not be keen to see the new tax take effect. In 2011, Massachusetts residents voted to eliminate a 6.25 percent alcohol sales tax, and Governor Charlie Baker recently said he doesn’t favor the tax hike and would rather look to other creative sources of revenue to address the opioid problem.

Jay Hibbard, vice president of government relations at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said the tax would place an unfair burden on Boston’s hospitality industry and put it at a considerable disadvantage to bars, restaurants and stores in nearby cities and towns.

“We have no argument with the issue that councilman Linehan has focused on—there's an opioid problem in Boston,” Hibbard said. “We just don't believe the hospitality industry should be targeted to pay for that.”
According to Hibbard, the tax would cost Boston nearly $10 million in lost sales and put over 130 jobs at risk by driving business out of Boston. He said that alcohol in Boston is already subject to heavy taxation at the federal and state level, and bars, restaurants and hotels in the city already receive an additional 2 percent “meals and lodging” tax.

“There is a real impact on the businesses that would be affected by this in Boston,” Hibbard said. “People are very willing to vote with their feet--they will easily make purchases elsewhere.”

A final public hearing for the tax proposal will be held on September 24. Linehan hopes the proposal will pass in the city council, win the approval of Mayor Walsh and move up to the statehouse by the end of the year. There, it will need to win the approval of the majority of the state legislature and be signed by the governor.

At Tuesday’s conference, Linehan and Baker said they are confident the council and the mayor will approve the proposal, but said they’ll need those working in addiction recovery to act as “foot soldiers” on the ground to get the plan through the State House.

“We’re looking to push the rock up and over the hill, slowly, deliberately, so that everyone that’s affected can get the message that 20 cents makes sense,” said Linehan.

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