New alcohol tax? Anchorage voters say ‘no’ for now

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Proponents of a 5 percent tax on all retail alcohol sales - as proposed in Proposition 9 on this year’s Municipal Election ballot - were barely trailing in the polls Tuesday as ballots continued pouring in to Election Central in Anchorage.

The first look at the numbers showed those opposed to the tax numbering 22,222 and those approving it 20,088.

[A first look at Anchorage's election returns]

The proposition, spearheaded in large part by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, was backed mainly for its potential effects on homelessness and substance abuse, and considered a piece of the puzzle in a solution toward some of the city's biggest issues.

"I'm a firm believer that if you're a cost-causer, you should be a cost-payer," Berkowitz said Tuesday evening, shortly after the first batch of results came through Election Central. "We want to make sure they're paying their fair share. The state is paying less and less, and we have to step in and do more."

The idea was to take the tax monies and funnel them toward health and public safety within the Municipality.

"It's a little bit disappointing for us," he said, citing a figure of $700 million per year in costs triggered by the liquor industry. "But we're going to continue to do what we can to make sure the liquor industry pays its fair share."

Those who oppose the tax, however, maintain that they want to see homelessness and substance abuse within the Municipality addressed, but don’t believe this tax is the way to do it.

"Our biggest concerns are really that Anchorage could turn into what we're seeing in Seattle," said Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association President Sarah Oates. "We really want to see long-term solutions to these issues, and we don't feel like this proposition is it."

Should Prop. 9 pass in the end, the Municipality would be authorized to levy a five percent tax on all retail sales of alcoholic beverages, beginning January 1, 2020. Opponents of the proposition, though, said the tax wouldn't only affect the prices consumers see, but small businesses as well.

"This is being sold to the public as, 'A $5 beverage will now be $5.25. You can eat a quarter. It goes to a greater good,'" Oates said. "I understand that math, but when you're looking at adding a new person to payroll, and then, if you're looking at more software to meet those reporting goals, that's another cost.

"The reality is," she added, "it could be a much larger cost for small businesses, Alaska businesses, that are going to have to find a way to pay."

Either way, Berkowitz said, health and substance abuse issues must be addressed, and addressed as soon as possible.

"We're not going to make any plans until we see all the votes and what it looks like," he said, "but we're going to continue to do what we can to make Anchorage a safe place for everybody who lives here."

Of 42,960 ballots cast, 20,088 voted in favor of passing the proposition and the tax, while 22,222 vote against. Results from Tuesday night, however, are the first of multiple rounds to be released by the municipality, with a total of 227,210 ballot packages mailed out throughout Anchorage.

"We're so happy that we're up a little bit," Oates said, "but it's very early. We still have a lot of ballots waiting to come in, and it's a very tight race. Happy so far, but we're nowhere near close to celebrating yet."

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