Tax On Alcohol to Treat Anchorage’s Worsening Substance Abuse Issues Fails

A controversial proposal to put an alcohol tax before Anchorage voters on the April ballot died before the Assembly Tuesday night. The plan was the latest proposed solution to the city’s costly issues managing chronic inebriates.

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The Assembly ordinance would have put a 5.5% tax on sales in package stores, setting the money aside for housing units, beds in detox centers, and other treatment options. That rate was on the low end of estimates considered by supporters, and left out sales in bars and restaurants.

Assembly Member Ernie Hall sponsored the bill, and believes that with more problemed drinkers relying on emergency services, a local tax is the only way to proactively address growing needs.

“I think for our business community, for our city as a whole,” Hall said during Assembly comments, “this is the major problem facing us now. And I see no other solution.”

The bill aimed to finally find a funding mechanism for services that have been proposed in a number of studies and policy papers looking at how to economically and compassionately treat those in Anchorage dealing with serious substance abuse and homelessness. For years, groups have identified measures to save money and help chronic inebriates transition off the streets. But those policies currently depend on grants and donations which can vary from year to year, hampering longer-term solutions.

“There have been plans and panels that have been put together for the last 34 years to make sure that there’s evidence-based recommendations for the municipality to implement,” explained Carmen Springer, director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “And the main reason why those have not been put in place is a lack of a dedicated funding stream to support those measures.”

For many Assembly members the bill just was not ready. It was introduced only a few weeks ago, a short window for raising support on what some see as a potential tax hike. Even the 5.5% rate was unspecified until the night of the vote. The measure needed a super-majority before it could go before voters on the ballot. And though several members support the intentions, they would prefer bringing a refined version to citizens.

“While this effort, I think, at some point might be a good tool, if you take it to the voters now and you haven’t worked with the community, you haven’t had the time to work with the community, then it’s going to fail,” said Assembly Member Jennifer Johnston. “You can’t bring it back next year.”

Many members from industry groups representing alcohol retailers and hospitality businesses sat in the audience wearing red to show their opposition to the tax, and applauded when it failed by a vote of 6-to-5. Heidi Heinrich is president of the Fairview Business Association, and does not believe it is fair to ask Anchorage residents to pay more while the state withholds funds meant to address a population coming from all over Alaska.

“We pay $40 million every year [in] alcohol tax, to the state,” Heinrich explained. “It was promised that it was going to be used for treatment, and that way we’re dealing with the state-wide problem instead of just making it just Anchorage’s issue. And that’s not how it has been spent.”

But for some, waiting for action has a higher cost. Linda Kellenbiegel was just a single day away from her 30th year of sobriety, and at the end of the meeting, after nearly everyone else had left, described to Assembly members what inaction means for those in Anchorage struggling hardest to recover.

“Once again we’re gonna have another committee, we’re gonna have another task force, we’re gonna have another thing. And what’s gonna happen is when it comes right down to it you’re gonna get threats from the alcohol industry to stop them from paying anything,” Kellenbiegel said, fighting back tears. “I just don’t know how many more people that I know who come in and get sober but can’t do it without the facilities, who can’t do it without the detox–how long are they going to have to wait? How many more are gonna have to die?”

Assembly members are tentatively planning to refine a version of the measure within an ad-hoc Committee on alcohol and drug abuse.