The unspirited approach of taxing sin 

Notre Dame catching fire during Holy Week is a tragedy, but also presents a potential parallel. In the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in 3 days. It foreshadowed His resurrection, rather than the earthly rebuilding of a physical structure.

There is probably an analogy and exegesis to be had there. It could incorporate the etymology of the word “charity” as Christian love, and the voluntary giving by wealthy French businesspeople to rebuild “Our Lady.”

But this is a political column. So, while the Resurrection defeated sin according to theological thought, the Maine Legislature continues its efforts to tax it.

More specifically, Democrats in Augusta have proposed a big increase in a “sin tax.” LD 1070 would raise the sales tax on alcoholic drinks in bars and restaurants by 25%. The sponsor of the bill said if this tax hike was a problem, then “you are drinking too much.”

A bill introduced in Augusta would raise the sales tax on alcoholic drinks in bars and restaurants by 25%. Bill Trotter|BDN

The bill raises other taxes on booze, as well. Maine’s craft beer industry? Apple orchards making hard cider? The makers would see a 42% increase in the excise tax per gallon. Making wine on the midcoast or importing it from the west coast? You’ll pay 66% more. Or, if you want to deliver champagne or Cointreau to Easter brunch? Send Augusta an additional 21% beyond existing taxes.

The real kicker is the title of the proposal. “An Act To Reduce the Number of Domestic Assaults and Suicides By Increasing the Tax on Alcohol.” The theory goes that, if adult beverages cost more, then harmful effects of alcohol use will be reduced because it is less affordable.

Of course, the question then arises: if people drinking less reduces bad things, why not just outlaw drinking altogether?

That would be an example of the past repeating itself. Neil S. Dow was known as the “Father of Prohibition,” and was twice mayor of Portland, Maine, between 1851-52 and 1855-56. He also happened to be a Republican and was later elected to Augusta, advocating strongly against the social ills stemming from alcohol.

The saga continues today. Most famously, it came to a head with the 18th and 21st Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, first outlawing, then re-permitting, what we call today “adult beverages.” But the debate did not completely end with the 21st Amendment, which vested great power in the states to do whatever they wish when it comes to booze. This is why Gov. Baldacci was able to “lease” the State-owned liquor monopoly to fill a budget gap, and why Gov. LePage was able to recapture that revenue and creatively securitize it to make good on Maine’s debt to its hospitals.

That leads to another part of LD 1070. It would also increase the tax on spirits sold in Maine by 20% on a “proof gallon basis.” But the State of Maine literally sets the price of liquor sold within its boundaries, because the state owns the monopoly. This opaque, roundabout attempt to create some public good ignores the most simple, straightforward tool held by Augusta when it comes to spirits.

Such is the challenge with “sin taxes.”  If alcohol — or tobacco, or marijuana, or what-have-you — are truly scourges to public health and order, then propose prohibition. There are certainly real, well-founded negatives from each. But one of the great things about America is the freedom to make bad choices. And attempts to simply price access to things beyond reach because they are deemed “sin” — unrelated to the specific, demonstrable public costs from their use — appears a veiled attempt to accomplish the politically unpopular goal of raising taxes.

Besides, it’s Easter weekend, and Jesus’ first public miracle was turning water into wine. So booze shouldn’t really count as “sin,” should it?

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.