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Mayor Goreham Breathing New Life Into Drink Tax

on April 07, 2010 10:58 AM

Faced with worsening budgetary woes, State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham said she will collaborate with other mayors this summer and lobby the state Legislature anew for a local alcohol tax.

State College officials first explored the idea several years ago, but state law makes no provision for local authorities to levy a drinking tax. Goreham and other borough leaders have said that a per-drink fee -- applied only to beverages served in bars and restaurants -- would be a major help in financing the police and other public services related to alcohol abuse.

More than 25 percent of the borough budget is wrapped up in handling alcohol-related issues, such as disorderly conduct and vandalism, Goreham said. But state law limits how the borough can collect its revenue, so much of the expense is passed along to residents through income and property taxes, she said.

"Municipalities all over Pennsylvania are suffering increasing financial problems because of the lack of revenue sources available to them," said Goreham, a Democrat. "Only the state Legislature can authorize new sources of income."

At the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities convention in June, she said, mayors will discuss how they can best lobby for a per-drink tax. She said they have not yet discussed the size of the tax they will seek.

But "it seems logical to be able to fund some of the costs of drinking" through such a fee, Goreham said. "We have no direct revenue from alcohol at all, but it creates more than 50 percent of our crime and problems."

Scott ConklinThe tax idea appears likely to face an uphill battle, though. "There is no political will in Harrisburg right now" to support the concept, said Tor Michaels, chief of staff for state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township.

Still, he said, "we need to explore all ideas to help our municipalities -- especially State College -- deal with students who are breaking the law and adding to the financial burden of our police departments."

Michaels said Conklin is pushing legislation that would allow district judges to impose an additional $250 fine for alcohol-related offenses. "We feel this is a step in the right direction to help municipalities address the financial burden caused by out-of-control partying," Michaels said.

Jake CormanLikewise, state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, said he does not believe a per-drink tax would find much support in Harrisburg. The state currently allows only Allegheny and Philadelphia counties to impose local drink taxes, and Corman said the one in Allegheny County -- set at seven percent -- has proven especially unpopular, sending business into surrounding communities.

"I think because it's so unpopular, it's sort of scared off everyone else from doing anything with it," Corman said. The Allegheny County alcohol tax went into effect in 2007.

Corman said he would prefer to focus attention on efforts to curb alcohol abuse, "as opposed to finding resources" to pay for it.

"The licensed establishments are not the problem," Corman said, noting that underage drinking is most often discovered at private parties away from the bars. "You don't want to make it unfriendly downtown to participate in the nightlife. It's a good revenue generator for the community."

And while "I don't think fines in themselves solve the problem," Corman said, he would support higher maximum fines for, say, public drunkenness. He said Penn State, local courts and the local community all should be involved in tackling the issue.

The Pennsylvania Tavern Association, a trade group, has its own approach. It opposes a per-drink tax, which Executive Director Amy Christie said would encourage customers to take their business away from restaurants and bars. She said the group favors legislation that would allow small games of chance, such as raffles and drawings, in the establishments.

That way, Christie said, the state could tax revenue from those small games and generate an estimated $185 million a year for the state.

"That's the kind of tax we like," she said.

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