What Price Sin?

Sin taxes

The U.S. government learned a lesson during Prohibition: You can’t legislate the public’s vices out of existence. All you can really do, they discovered, is miss out on the tax revenue those vices generate. Ever since then, commerce in alcohol and tobacco has been tightly regulated.

In the midst of the current economic crunch, bankrupt states are learning that lesson all over again. If you’re a governor facing a severe budget shortfall, raising “sin taxes” is a much safer bet than endorsing an increase in the property and/or income tax.

One of the most popular approaches to raising additional revenue is the repeal of “blue laws” prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Fourteen states have struck down these laws since 2002, bringing to 36 the number of states that allow Sunday sales. The other 14 might want to read that part of the Constitution that prohibits the government from making a law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Among the states that still ban the sale of booze on Sundays, some contend that lifting the ban would be unfair to smaller establishments, which would have to open on Sunday to be competitive; in some states, coalitions of mom-and-pop stores have joined together to fight a change in the law.

In the state of Washington, where liquor stores are owned and controlled by the state, there’s an even more intriguing proposal on the table. House Bill 1550 would legalize marijuana and allow it to be sold in state liquor stores—not medical marijuana, mind you, but pot for one and all. The proposed law is backed by both a former Seattle police chief and the union representing state health care workers, which contends that the proceeds from marijuana sales could help preserve home care services for 40,000 seniors and people with disabilities. The state Bar Association also supports legalization, as do a number of other people who recognize that the state is sinking further into debt while drug cartels reap the profits on marijuana sales. This will be a fascinating debate to follow.



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