Why Wisconsin needs a liquor tax hike

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If there’s one thing this state does not need more of, it’s prisoners. But apparently that’s the price we’re willing to pay to send a strong message about drunk driving. Therefore, despite the overly-simplistic approach the legislature is taking to the issue, it is nevertheless good that the state took some kind of action, because according to the stats, the message was not being heard.

However, with the criminalization (it becomes a misdemeanor) of first offense OWI comes an increase in offenders serving time. Estimates put the cost at around $70 million. To pay for the expense Senate Democrats have proposed increasing the liquor tax from $0.86 per liter to $1.36 per liter. According to Wispolitics, Senate Dems also have tried to cut costs to the state by advocating more offenders be put in municipal jails instead of state prisons.

The two committee Republicans voted against the bill, with Rep. Randy Hopper releasing a blistering, factually-flawed response to the “tax increase” that the Democrats “snuck in.”

Frankly, I’m glad the Democrats snuck it in at the last minute. 2009 is the year when the state of Wisconsin starts taking responsibility for its gargantuan prison system, which means start paying its bills. Throwing somebody in prison is a radical step that a society inevitably pays for – in far too many ways to go into detail now. A tax on liquor is likely the most honest way to get citizens to realize this.

Ever since the 1980’s, Republicans have tried to have it both ways on prisons. Under the leadership of Tommy Thompson, Republicans successfully got crime bills exempt from the fiscal estimates that are required to accompany all other types of legislation (the policy has since changed). As costs ballooned, any politician who advocated decreasing prison costs was accused of selling out the state’s safety for a little money, and of course, anybody who advocated higher taxes to fund the prison hysteria was a…you know the company line.

The Democrats’ decision to transfer costs to local jails is not especially significant. Fiscally it simply shifts the burden from the state to localities, however, there are probably quite a few municipalities with more space in their jails than the state, which begun exporting prisoners to other states years ago, has in its own. Therefore it might be slightly better fiscally. Minnesota, which has 1/3 as many prisoners in its state system as Wisconsin, uses a de-centralized system.

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