Beer tax bills debated by legislature

by david peck

A battle over the beer tax is brewing in Cheyenne, Sen. Ray Peterson reported as the 63rd Wyoming Legislature’s 2015 general session nears its midway point.

Peterson, a longtime advocate of increasing the excise tax on malt beverages to help pay for the social costs of drinking, saw the bill he sponsored with Rep. Mike Madden of Buffalo (HB140) go down while a bill to totally remove the excise tax on malt beverages passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly.

The Peterson-Madden bill would have increased the excise tax on malt beverages by 4.5 cents per liter.

While co-sponsoring the beer tax increase with Peterson, Madden also sponsored a bill (HB 141) to repeal the excise tax on malt beverages, currently one-half cent per liter. That bill passed the House 49-11 last Thursday and was received in the Senate for introduction.

Peterson said he may have the last laugh, however, because the bill might be referred to the Senate Revenue Committee where he, as chairman, could “put it in the drawer” and not let the bill see the light of day.

While much of Peterson’s time has been consumed by Medicaid expansion bills as a member of the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee (see related story), he has worked on other issues.

He said Senate Joint Resolution 4, which he is co-sponsoring with Rep. Nathan Winters of Thermopolis, is “struggling” while other constitutional convention resolutions seem to be fairing better. Peterson’s resolution calls for a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution to restrain the federal government by requiring a balanced budget, establishing term limits and limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.

Peterson said his resolution is purposely open ended so that a broad coalition of states can more easily call for the constitutional convention. He said resolutions (applications) with more specificity might not match the wording of other state resolutions and could be thrown out.

“The application each state sends in has to be almost exact so that all applications can be aggregated,” he said. “My fear is that the others might differ somewhat and be rejected at the federal level.”

Peterson said he also worries about a resolution simply calling for a balanced federal budget because the federal budget could be balanced by raising taxes and the resolution doesn’t reduce federal authority to do so.

The Senate Revenue Committee’s bill to establish a two-year task force to study mineral taxes passed the Senate 25-4 last week and has been introduced in the House. Peterson said the intent of the bill is to study and simplify Wyoming’s mineral taxation system, which he said has been criticized by local governments and companies alike.

The bill calls for a task force to “study and make recommendations for a fair, viable and simplified system of valuation and taxation on minerals.”

Peterson cited a story where a company overpaid county taxes by $13 million due to the complexity of the taxation system, and the county had to pay back the money after partially spending it. Companies don’t like the system, he said, because they have to employ a large number of attorneys to deal with the complexity of the system.

Peterson’s bill to provide for the licensing of massage therapists (SF86) is opposed by Sen. Charles Scott, chairman of the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, where the bill has been assigned, so it will not see the light of day this session, he said. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Elaine Harvey of Lovell.

Peterson expressed concerns about HB114 that would repeal the Gun Free Zones act and allow concealed weapons (with a valid permit) to be carried in any governmental meeting, any meeting of the legislature or a legislative committee, any public school, college or professional sporting event, any public elementary or secondary school facility and any public college or university facility. The bill would maintain the prohibition on concealed weapons in courtrooms.

The bill passed the House on third reading Monday 42-17, but Peterson said he has reservations about the bill.

“I don’t know that I could support something like that,” he said. “It’s just crazy. I understand the need for schools where law enforcement is hours away. That’s the kind of bill I’d like to see (allowing guns in schools if they request it) where schools could enact local policies and procedures to protect themselves.”

Friday is the last day for bills to be reported out of committee in their house of origin, and Monday is the last day for the Committee of the Whole (first reading) in the house of origin. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn on Friday, March 6.