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December 23, 2013

Maureen Hayden: GOP leaders likely won't touch 'third rail' in raising tax

INDIANAPOLIS – While you’re imbibing your favorite Christmas spirits this season, consider this: Would you be willing to pay a few more pennies for the alcohol spicing up your eggnog?

That’s a question that a coalition of criminal justice and mental health officials are putting to legislators.

The group proposes raising the state’s excise tax on liquor, wine and beer by a few cents. It wants to put the money to treatment programs for addicts, in light of a new law aimed at diverting low-level offenders from state prisons and back into their communities.

Aaron Negangard thinks it’s a good idea. The county prosecutor for Ohio and Dearborn counties is a tough-on-crime guy who lobbied hard against the reduced penalties for drug dealing that are in the new law. He sees tough penalties as a hammer he can use to scare and punish illegal-drug profiteers. But he also sees too many addicts cycling through the legal system, going to prison from crimes of burglary and theft to fund their addictions.

“I’m a conservative Republican,” Negangard said. “And I don’t have a problem with putting another nickel tax on a six pack of beer to pay for some good treatment programs.”

Getting the conservative Republicans who control the Statehouse to see it his way is another thing. Gov. Mike Pence wants to repeal the business personal property tax that provides nearly $1 billion to schools, libraries and the local governments that would have to pay for more addiction services.

But no way are Pence or GOP legislative leaders ready to touch the “third rail” issue of raising the alcohol tax, fearful of what they see as a lethal political charge that comes with it.

Veteran Statehouse observer Brian Howey, editor of Howey Politics Indiana, remembers watching what happened when the General Assembly raised the motorcycle registration fee by $10 in 2007. The money was pledged for new efforts to track and research spinal cord and brain injuries. An outcry ensued, Howey said. A year later, that fee was gone.

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