More Falsehoods about Alcohol Tax

Marc Kilmer Jul 18, 2012

As a policy analyst, one of the most frustrating things I encounter is how advocates and the media simply ignore facts. A good example is this news story on the effects of the first year of Maryland’s higher sales tax on alcohol. Advocates, presumably Vinny Demarco and his crew, are celebrating this tax as being a great boon to people with disabilities. In fact, the tax hike gave a pittance to people with disabilities, but the advocates and media ignore this fact completely.

To begin with, let’s start with one thing in the AP story linked to above. It claims that “most of the money [from the increased alcohol tax] is now set aside for health-related initiatives, including aid for the developmentally disabled.”

No, it’s not. This isn’t a matter of opinion; it’s right there in state law that most of the money from this tax hike goes to school construction. Only 15% of the alcohol tax proceeds go to people with disabilities. And this only happens in the first year of the tax hike, meaning that beginning July 1 there is no more earmarking of funds for people with disabilities.

It’s just sloppy reporting to say what the AP story said. Had the reporter done even basic fact-checking (such as looking at the alcohol tax hike legislation), he or she would have never written that line. Is it too much to ask a reporter to get the basic facts straight? Apparently.

The alcohol tax was promoted by lobbyists like Vinny Demarco as a way to help people with disabilities. But as I’ve discussed elsewhere, when the tax hike was actually passed, people with disabilities were largely ignored. The money went to pay for school construction projects mainly located in the districts of legislators who supported the tax hike.

However, this fact is ignored by advocates and the press. Even though people with disabilities only received a pittance, these advocates keep giving the impression that the alcohol tax was passed to benefit them. It’s an astounding example of how rhetoric is far more important than reality. Advocates make claims that are easily disproven, and yet the media largely goes along with the narrative crafted by these mendacious advocacy organizations.

Demarco has done this before on the alcohol tax and it’s worked for him. Sure, I pointed out the facts, but you didn’t see anything countering his narrative in the press.

Unfortunately, this type of sloppiness is how bad public policy is enacted. Advocates can craft a story that bears scant relation to reality and, because it sounds good, can sneak in policies that do little to deal with the issue at hand. That’s why we have an alcohol tax hike that was used as a one year slush fund to reward legislators who supported it, presented as some sort of miracle for people with disabilities.

I used to be astounded at this sort of thing; now I’m just resigned to seeing it happen over and over again. I just tell myself, in a paraphrase of the line at the end of Chinatown, “forget it, Marc, it’s Maryland.”