By David Peck
Sen. Ray Peterson (R-Cowley) is looking someone, anyone, to support his quest to raise funds to fight alcohol abuse in Wyoming.
As the 2014 budget session of the Wyoming Legislature begins next Monday, Feb. 10, Peterson is hoping to co-sponsor a bill to raise the malt beverage tax in Wyoming from its current 2 cents per gallon to 17 cents per gallon, but since all revenue bills must originate in the House of Representatives, Peterson is seeking a sponsor in the House.
Peterson said a 2010 University of Wyoming study by the UW Survey and Analysis Group showed that alcohol abuse has a direct cost to state and local government in Wyoming of $27.5 million per year for law enforcement, courts, treatment centers and the like, as well as indirect costs in lost productivity of $840 million annually.
And yet how much does the current malt beverage tax generate? Just $250,000 a year, Peterson said.
“In my mind I look at a $27½ million cost and say, ‘Boy, there’s a big hole in our budget bucket.’ We have been subsidizing alcohol abuse in Wyoming, and it comes from the general fund,” Peterson said.
Raising the malt beverage tax to 17 cents per gallon would bring Wyoming in line with surrounding states and would raise about $2 million extra to fight alcohol abuse but would cost consumers only about 2 cents per can of beer, he said, shaking his head when he hears that people are threatening to drive to other states to seek cheaper beer.
“This would help close the budget gap and still keep beer distributors and retailers competitive,” Peterson said. “It hasn’t been raised since 1935.”
An attempt to bring the malt beverage bill as a bill sponsored by the Senate Revenue Committee, which Peterson chairs, failed by one vote in September, he said.
Peterson is sponsoring a companion bill that would use the additional revenue from the increase in the malt beverage tax to set up a grants program for local governments to apply for funds for such things as law enforcement, treatment centers or education. He envisions a 90-10 split with local government only having to pay a 10 percent match.
Local government could apply for up to $1 million, but they would have to come up with a plan for the funds, Peterson said. The application would go through the Wyoming Dept. of Health.
While the budget session begins Monday for 20 days, Republicans will first caucus at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Holiday Inn in Cheyenne. Gov. Matt Mead and the other four top elected officials will meet with legislators to review the 2014-16 biennial budget.
Peterson said he has been listening to Joint Appropriations Committee budget hearings and said the JAC, after working the governor’s budget, has left $26 million for the legislature to “play with…for our wants, needs and ideas.”
Gov. Mead will address a joint session of the legislature Monday at 10 a.m. for his annual state-of-the-state address, and then the budget work will begin. Other than the budget, bills must receive a two-thirds majority to be introduced during the budget session.
After making 8 percent cuts last year, the legislature should not have to make any further cuts to the budget this year thanks to better-than-anticipated revenue, Peterson said, though he said the Dept. of Health is still reviewing Medicaid waivers for physical disabilities in an effort to make the program as efficient as possible.
Peterson returns as chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee, and he said there are no major revenue increases planned for this session, just some housekeeping bills to come out of his committee.
Peterson also sits on the Senate Labor, Health and Social Service Committee, which is continuing to work with the federal Affordable Care Act. He remains firmly opposed to any type of Medicaid expansion in Wyoming, despite the federal government’s promises to pay for the program, noting, “There is no free money.”
Peterson is again staying at the Holiday Inn while in Cheyenne, and he said he can be reached best by email at Ray.Peterson@wyoleg.gov.
“That’s the best way,” he said. “I check my emails probably 50 times a day.”
The session is scheduled to run for four weeks through Friday, March 7.
“It will be a fast, interesting session,” Peterson said.