May 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Graham cedes relevance for rogue tax hike

On Monday afternoon, despite long chairing the D.C. Council committee overseeing alcoholic beverage laws in the District, Council member Jim Graham managed to render himself irrelevant to consideration by his colleagues of Mayor Vincent Gray’s FY 2013 budget proposal to extend alcohol service hours at the city’s bars, restaurants, nightclubs and hotels.

In proposing to hike tax rates for all alcohol sales, Graham has confirmed his status as a legislator out of step with both the mayor and a Council majority opposed to further increasing local tax burdens already among the highest in the nation. His surprising ploy at a full Council budget hearing revealed that he remains outside the realm of mainstream public opinion in demonstrating a never-ending penchant for increased government spending fueled by even higher tax levies.

Worse, his suggestion amounts to converting hospitality businesses, already a primary contributor to city coffers and major component of the local economy, into an ATM from which to snatch additional funds. Graham’s proposal includes retail alcohol sellers for this bank account of his dreams.

Graham proposes raising the excise tax on alcohol, charged to wholesalers and passed on to community businesses and consumers, to a level generating an additional annual yield of $20 million to fund his spending priorities – resulting in an increase of six cents per drink. But he suggests the amount could be set even higher. Charging 10 cents per drink, he pointed out, would raise $34 million.

Why stop there? A dollar-per-drink surcharge would unleash $340 million to finance an even higher budget deficit and more runaway spending. Graham exhibits no hesitation in adding to the current 10 percent sales tax on all alcohol purchases.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who chairs the Committee on Finance and Revenue that considers tax proposals, broke the news of this startling development to a gathering of hospitality business leaders at a Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) reception hosted shortly after Graham’s pronouncement. Evans appeared as incredulous announcing Graham’s idea as the assembled restaurant and bar owners were hearing of it.

Ironically, the RAMW event honored former Mayor Anthony Williams with presentation of the prestigious Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award, named after the legendary local restaurateur who was, for 44 years, proprietor of the high-profile downtown establishment that bore his name. Williams is credited with bringing Washington back from the brink of financial disaster and ending years of federal control brought on by excessive government spending.

Williams has agreed to chair a newly created nine-member Tax Revision Committee established by the mayor and Council Chair Kwame Brown to review the local tax code. He assured the hometown hospitality business operators that the purpose of the commission is decidedly not one of identifying ways to further increase taxes.

Graham had publicly struggled for weeks to devise a budget-balancing alternative to replace the mayor’s proposal for a modest one-hour extension of the maximum allowable alcohol service period at the city’s bars, restaurants, nightclubs and hotels that he opposes.

Gray’s proposal would join the District with eight states allowing on-premise alcohol sales until 3 a.m. on weeknights and six states that permit sales until 4 a.m. on weekends, in order to eliminate a looming $172 million deficit and enhance the city’s reputation as an evolving world-class city.

Graham will likely suffer additional backlash for abandoning his prior suggestion to allow retail liquor sales on Sundays by eliminating one of the last “blue laws” still in effect in a major metropolis. Although merely an attempt to come up with an alternate revenue source that replaced only a portion of the additional sales tax revenues of later alcohol service hours, he no longer supports it. The idea, however, had quickly proven even more popular among District residents than later bar sales.

In opposing extended alcohol service, Graham has aligned himself with a vocal minority of small citizens groups, church ministers and Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) members who have traditionally engaged as protestants in alcohol licensing battles and opposed Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) reforms.

Now he has unabashedly chosen to push for an increase in taxation to satisfy a reckless take-and-spend philosophy to which he clings.

He well deserves the notoriety and enmity such foolishness will earn him.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at [email protected].

  • Oh please! DC has one of the LOWEST excise taxes on alcohol IN THE COUNTRY! If this bill is passed, and you go out on a Friday night and have five drinks, you’re going to pay 30 cents more for those drinks. To put that in perspective, that same 30 cents will buy you roughly 8.5 minutes of parking in the downtown core at a meter, which is not even enough time to order, pay for, and consume a single shot. If you can’t afford 30 cents more per weekend night, then you can’t afford to go out, period, and should be at the library or at the park instead of out at the bar.

    There is nothing “world class” about being sh*tfaced at 4:00 in the morning. There is nothing “world class” about wanting to keep drinking at that hour – when was the last time you saw a photo of someone who’d been drinking all night that was taken at 4am and thought to yourself “Oh, S/he looks SO classy!!”? That’s not “world class”, Mr. Lee, that’s ALCOHOLISM. Graham’s proposal is not about converting the hospitality industry into an ATM, it’s about asking those who use that industry to pay their fair share. Six cents per drink helps cover the costs of paramedics to scrape people off the sidewalk after DUI crashes and off their bathroom floors when they pull an Amy Winehouse. Six cents per drink helps cover the costs of police (which are not paid for by clubs unless they voluntarily pay a reimbursable police detail, which Councilmember Evans introduced as a requirement months ago that Graham won’t bring to a vote) to control rowdy patrons. Six cents per drink helps fund Health and Human Services and their programs to overcome addiction issues.

    Now, not allowing liquor sales on Sunday? That’s just foolish. If you can buy beer and wine at a store, hard liquor at bars and restaurants, and consume hard liquor you bought any other day of the week at your home on a Sunday, you might as well be able to buy it on Sunday too. You’re right on that. But sorry, Mr. Lee, you obviously have never lived within a block or two of a place with a liquor license, and you’re wrong on the rest of it. One nightclub in Shaw has already seen, in the past eight months, a brawl inside that resulted in arrests, two young men stabbed and left in critical condition, and just this month a drunken patron who hit a Metro PD officer with her car when he tried to stop her from leaving the scene. We don’t need an extra seven hours of this in the middle of the night every night of the week in Shaw. If you want it and think it’s such a swell idea, just reply to this comment with your home address and I’ll make the flyers to let the club-goers know the after party is in YOUR front yard, not mine.

  • Dear Mr. Shawguy,

    I understand your concerns about the extended bar hours and excise tax on alcohol here in the district – they are valid concerns. However, you have failed to take into account the small, local business which produce alcohol in this city. Folks from our 3 small breweries, one future distillery, and alcohol distributors will bear the brunt of this tax. “6 cents” sounds like nothing when purchasing a “drink”, however for a brewery, that will be just over 700% increase in their tax bills. The current tax for a keg of beer is a little less than $3, with this new tax, it will be $22. If this tax increase passes, it will be local business owners that will hurt. Do you think it’s fair to put small operations out of business?

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