Two Boston city councilors filed paperwork on Monday to begin a process that could result in a substantial new citywide tax on the sale of alcohol, and to use the millions of dollars in expected revenue exclusively on substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.
The proposal, if passed by both the City Council and the state Legislature, would impose a tax of 1 percent to 2 percent on all alcohol sales, including beer and wine, in city restaurants, taverns, bars, supermarkets, and package stores.
“It could have a major impact on the city,” said City Council President Bill Linehan, who offered the proposal along with City Councilor Frank Baker.
Linehan said that thousands of people are afflicted by alcohol and drug addiction, many of them unemployed and a burden on the public. Helping them sober up and become productive citizens represents a huge opportunity to save public money, he said.
“Dollar for dollar, it’s the best buy we can get,” Linehan said in an interview. “Once they get straightened out, there are no more demands from them for free hospital services, for shelter, for other services. They get jobs and start paying taxes.”
“There is momentum in favor of this,” Linehan said. “It’s time to put up or shut up.”
Alcohol is already subject to an excise tax, and the Legislature passed a state law in 2009 to add a sales tax of 6.25 percent on top of the excise tax. But voters repealed that new sales tax on alcohol, 52 percent to 48 percent, in a statewide referendum in 2010. Proponents had promised to use a portion of the money raised to underwrite treatment programs.
Last year, Linehan and Baker proposed adding a sales tax on alcohol at supermarkets and package stores. But Linehan said the pair dropped the proposal after hearing from retailers who complained that the proposal unfairly singled out their industry while leaving alone alcohol sold at restaurants, taverns, and bars.
That led to this year’s proposal, which is still being met with opposition.
“We are opposed to an increase in the sale taxes,” said Frank Anzalotti, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, which represents about 2,000 retailers of alcoholic beverages statewide, including hundreds in Boston. “Alcohol is already taxed. It would mean a tax on a tax.”
“We just can’t turn to an increase in taxes whenever there’s a problem,” said Bob Luz, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
Asked about the proposal, the office of Mayor Martin J. Walsh released a statement saying that the mayor “understands the critical need for additional funding for treatment programs in Boston,” but was noncommittal on support for the measure.
Walsh “looks forward to learning more about the proposal during the Council’s process, and will review the specific policy if it reaches his desk,” the statement continued.
The proposal is expected to be taken up on Wednesday by the City Council, but no vote on the measure is likely to come for at least several weeks, Linehan said.
If the City Council passes it, the proposal — known as a home rule petition — would have to be approved by a majority vote of both the House and the Senate and signed by the governor.
Walsh, in his state of the city speech last month, said he was troubled by the closing of a bridge to Long Island, the site of addiction treatment facilities and the city’s largest homeless shelter. The bridge was closed due to structural deficiencies.
Walsh, who has publicly acknowledged his own alcoholism, said in his speech that closing the bridge “hit me hard.”
“Nothing is more important to me than protecting our most vulnerable neighbors, whether the addicted or the homeless,” Walsh said.
Governor Charlie Baker has moved forcefully to address the toll taken by opioid-related addiction since taking office in January. Last week, he appointed a 16-member working group to hold public meetings, assess the resources devoted to the problem, and submit “specific, targeted recommendations” by May.
At the time of his announcement, Baker highlighted a startling fact: an estimated 978 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts in 2013, a 46 percent increase over the previous year.