Beer tax faces slow demise


Death and taxes. Inevitable. Just ask Oregon state Legislators, who each year hear proposals to raise Oregon's beer tax &

among the lowest in the nation &

and each year see its demise under the weight of the powerful brewery lobby and their Republican supporters who loathe taxes of any kind.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, is an exception. He put his political neck on the line earlier this session when he first proposed a beer tax increase of 5 cents per beer to augment funding to the Oregon State Police, whose patrol force has been shrinking.

In 1976, the last year Oregon's gasoline tax directly funded the state police, there were 660 troopers, 40 of whom patrolled Jackson County. Today, only 11 state troopers patrol Jackson County, and the agency has a local presence of 20 hours a day.

Given the state has not raised the beer tax since 1977, Esquivel believes his proposal is a reasonable way to reverse the force's "steady erosion" of the agency, by governor's of both political parties.

"This thing has not been touched in 30 years," Esquivel said of the beer tax, which is $2.60 per 31-gallon barrel, or eight-tenths of — cent per bottle.

Earlier this session, Esquivel proposed a straight 5-cent-a-glass tax on beer, which would raise the beer tax to $19.13 per barrel, to almost 6 cents. That idea was met with a lukewarm response among most lawmakers.

To take some of the political pressure off some of his Republican colleagues, many of whom have promised not to raise taxes, Esquivel amended his bill into a ballot referral that would instead ask the voters to approve the beer tax increase. Even this proposal is sputtering.

In his latest push, Esquivel teamed with Democratic state Sens. Rick Metsger of Welches, Rod Monroe of Portland and Ben Westlund of Tumalo. The four lawmakers want to divert half of the revenue collected by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission that now flows into the state's general fund to the state police patrol division.

The bipartisan proposal, which would also impose a 5-cent-a-beer tax increase, could provide enough revenue to hire 300 additional state troopers over the next three years, allowing the agency, he said, to resume patrols 24 hours a day.

"It is going to be tough, but if we don't at least try to get this then shame on us," Esquivel said.

While nearly every lawmaker in Salem wants to see 24-hour patrols resume, they differ widely on how to provide the coverage.

Already, the state Legislature has approved an Oregon State Police budget that includes 100 more troopers over the next two years. Esquivel was one of two Republicans in the Legislature who voted against the proposal, arguing the state's highways will still lack 24-hour coverage.

"If we are not going to go it right why do it at all," he asked rhetorically.

Jason Williams, executive director of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon, said it would be unfair to saddle beer drinkers with paying for the state police, especially since the state is flush with cash this session.

"Just because (legislators) value government spending and paying for pork barrel programs over the state police does not mean that people who drink beer should have to pay for their bad budgeting," Williams said.

State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said he supports Esquivel's efforts, and signed on to his earlier proposal.

"I am a dedicated beer drinker and I am willing to pay my share," Buckley said.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, in his proposed 2007-09 state budget, suggested to lawmakers that an additional 139 troopers could be funded by placing a surcharge on auto insurance premiums. That proposal gained little traction and was ultimately shelved by legislative budget writers.

Calling the deficit of state troopers in the county "flabbergasting," Ashland Deputy Police Chief Rich Walsh said the city periodically responds in their place as "part of a team effort."

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, who was a state trooper before joining the county, said he remembers in the early 1980s there were eight troopers patrolling during the graveyard shift. Winters said when he left the force in 1998, he was often the only state police officer on duty in Oregon's three Southwestern counties.

He said it is "absolutely ludicrous" that greater political will to put more troopers on the road does not exist in Salem.

"Anything (the Legislature) can do to get dedicated funding for the state police, whether it is a beer tax or not, somebody needs to get it there," Winters said in a telephone interview, adding that it is "irresponsible" to run the state police the way it is being funded.

As written, 70 percent of the beer tax proceeds would go to fund state police patrols. Under the bipartisan proposal, the remaining 30 percent of receipts would go to alcohol rehabilitation and detox programs.

Esquivel said a dedicated funding source for the Oregon State Police outside of the general fund would protect the force from economic downturn and, perhaps more importantly, he said, protect the force from legislators' whims come budget-writing time every two years.

Under their proposal, a three-fifths vote in both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor's signature would be required to divert the dedicated funds.

"That way," he said, "they can't get their grubby little hands on the money."

Despite the bipartisan effort, the proposal has been met with stiff resistance and has failed to garner much support.

"People in this building need to stop worrying about the next election and do what's right," Esquivel said.

covers the state Legislature for The Daily Tidings. Reach him at

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