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Let State College tax alcohol: OpEd

How a tax could make the borough millions

The first part of the Centre Daily Times series "The Cost of Alcohol," what a poured drink tax could do to benefit the borough.
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The first part of the Centre Daily Times series "The Cost of Alcohol," what a poured drink tax could do to benefit the borough.

On a sunny day in August, 1998, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge looked down from the roof of a parking garage in State College to condemn an alcohol-fueled riot that occurred weeks earlier. Ridge appeared with university and local officials, police officers and news reporters, most still in shock over the three-hour riot that resulted in injuries, arrests and $50,000 in damage.

“Out of the ashes of this tragedy came a national reawakening to the problem of underage drinking,” Ridge said.

Following that riot the state promised to do everything possible to prevent it from happening again. Then the alcohol problem grew worse. More and bigger riots and many student deaths related to alcohol occurred over the next 20 years. And although the focus is often on students, the alcohol problem also includes large numbers of visitors and local residents.

As revealed in the recent Centre Daily Times coverage of alcohol’s impact on State College, it is time for the state to provide the community the resources to deal with this burden. After promises they would help address the problem this is what the state did: * Approve Sunday sales by beer distributors; * Launch Sunday State Store hours. * Approve beer sales by grocery stores. * Add an additional State Store to the community. * Approve wine sales by grocery stores. * Okay beer sales by convenience/gas stores. * Remove constraints on bottle shop Sunday beer sales. * Welcome new liquor licenses in and near downtown State College. * Expand the number of businesses that piggyback bars, restaurants and clubs to their existing liquor license.

With help like this from the Commonwealth the alcohol problem is now more of a burden than ever. If the state is going to create the perfect storm it is time to let local officials levy a tax on alcohol to clean it up. The general public should not have to fund all the resources needed by police and emergency services to deal with this.

This idea is not a new one. It has been discussed for years. Local legislators have done little to lead this effort in Harrisburg. They either don’t care or feel strongly about supporting the alcohol industry and businesses that worry a minor tax on alcohol will hurt their sales. For instance, according to the Commonwealth’s campaign finance website, Rep. Kerry Benninghoff has received thousands of dollars in contributions from the Pennsylvania Beer Alliance PAC and thousands more from a group called FoodPAC, a group that exists to “Help … protect and advance the priorities of Pennsylvania’s supermarket and convenience store industries.”

Three-fourths of police calls in State College are alcohol-related. The largest part of the borough’s budget goes toward the police department. Real estate taxes are paying for the alcohol problem. Benninghoff and other local politicians need to look out for the taxpayers of Centre County.

Allegheny County and Philadelphia both tax alcohol. The state needs to expand that right. Pushing costs as close as possible to the problem makes sense. The more alcohol you drink the more potential you have to be part of the alcohol problem. And with a local alcohol tax, the more you drink the more tax you pay. Lift some of the financial fallout of the alcohol problem off of real estate owners. Share it directly with those who drink.

Bill Mahon served on the campus-community alcohol partnership, including co-chairing that organization for several years.