Is there any political debate in Oregon as stale as the conversation about raising the beer tax? It's always the same tired brew that starts with a light buzz in the Legislature but moves pretty quickly to the nausea stage.
You may have the spins already, if you caught the story Feb. 16 in The Oregonian by Janie Har, which described the politics swirling again in Salem around the state beer tax. The debate, as always, starts with a legislator, in this case Rep. Ben Cannon, D-Portland, proposing to raise Oregon's tax on beer, which is one of the nation's lowest. Cannon's bill is too much to swallow: It tops off the existing beer tax of less than a penny a glass with an increase to 15 cents.
The new tax would raise more than $300 million over the next two years from beer drinkers, distributors and producers.
That's not going to happen.
Oregon's beverage industry will do what it always does: unleash its lobbyists in Salem, leverage the access it buys with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions every election and put on its best public face, trotting out appealing Oregon beer makers such as Kurt Widmer of Widmer Brothers and Gary Fish of Deschutes Brewery. You'll never see executives of Anheuser-Busch-Inbev. Instead, you'll see Widmer offering his back-of-the-bar-napkin math, arguing that a 15-cent per pint tax increase actually would lead to a price increase of up to $1.50 a glass, once everybody in the beer supply chain is done taking his or her cut.
But this debate isn't about facts, anyway. It's about political influence and it's about the affection that Oregonians, including lawmakers, have for local beer and wine, and by extension, their producers.
Excuse our cynicism, but we've sat through this particular barroom discussion enough times to know that it is leading nowhere. And that's a tragedy, because at the same time this state can't bring itself to add a few pennies to the price of a beer, it is busily slashing alcohol and drug treatment programs across the state.
The Legislature is also in the process of breaking the promise inherent in Measure 57, the crackdown on property crime, to provide drug and alcohol treatment for offenders. Instead, Oregon is falling back to its default position, which says there's nothing that ails anyone in this state that a mandatory 60-month stay in a state prison cell won't cure.
The beer industry lobby can keep a tax increase bottled up in the Legislature. It can keep pouring money into legislative campaigns and lobbying and claiming with a straight face that any increase in the beer tax, even one that leaves Oregon's tax lower than neighboring states, is certain to kill the state's microbrew industry.
But it's also possible that one day this state might find itself in such dire straits, facing sweeping school closures and other unfathomable cuts to essential public services, that lawmakers panic and not only raise the beer tax, but pour it into the bottomless glass that is the state's general fund.
You never know.
There is a better, more responsible way: The beer industry could use its expertise to help lawmakers craft a modest and fair tax increase - even one that left Oregon's tax in the bottom third of state beer taxes - dedicate the revenue to alcohol treatment and wipe this issue off the table, once and for all.