A city council effort to impose an alcohol tax that would raise funds to battle addiction was lauded for its good intentions, but that didn’t prevent its resounding defeat at Wednesday’s meeting, the final session of the year.
Councilors Bill Linehan and Frank Baker argued in favor of imposing a 2 percent tax on alcohol sold in Boston’s restaurants and liquor stores. The estimated $20 million in annual revenue would be earmarked for services that treat and prevent substance abuse.
“This would allow us to control our money and come up with real plans that we know will work in our neighborhoods,” said Baker during the meeting.
But ten councilors voted no, leaving only Linehan, Baker and City Council president Michelle Wu in favor of the ordinance.
Those who spoke against the measure said the decision was difficult given the severity of substance abuse problems in the state.
“Accidental overdose is now the number one cause of accidental death in Massachusetts. Five people a day in our state are losing their life to this disease,” said Annissa Essaibi-George.
She added, however, that this was not a burden local business owners should bear.
Massachusetts Restaurant Association President Bob Luz, who has argued against the measure at council hearings, agreed.
“We’re very appreciative that the vast majority of the City Council has identified the fact that restaurants shouldn’t be used to solve the opiate crisis,” he said.
Councilor Ayanna Pressley said restaurant industry concerns did not influence her decision. She praised the intent of the ordinance, referencing her own father’s 16-year battle with opioid addiction. But she said she ultimately decided the measure’s wording was too vague.
“We need to be more prescriptive and specific in the dedication of these monies,” she said during the meeting. “We should all be advocating for a more robust line item for the Office of Recovery [Services] that is right now under our jurisdiction and auspices.”
Linehan still hopes to find a dedicated revenue stream to address Massachusetts’ substance abuse problem — even if it means finding another way to go after alcohol sales.
“The alcohol industry and the hospitality industry are huge. It’s a billion-dollar industry here in the city of Boston,” he said after the meeting. “They’re all my friends, and no one’s promoted the business more than me, but that doesn’t mean that the product they’re serving isn’t culpable in the realm of substance abuse.”
Also at the final session of the year, Councilor Matt O’Malley’s ordinance, which aims to reduce natural gas leaks, passed by a 12-1 vote. The measure, which could go into effect July 1, calls for gas companies to monitor and report on gas leaks with more transparency, and promotes coordination between road-work crews so that gas infrastructure can be maintained more efficiently.
“We took our time with this; it’s been almost two years in the making,” said O’Malley, admitting that the measure didn’t get as much attention as some of the hot-button issues on Wednesday’s agenda. “But it’s a fantastic ordinance. It’s going to yield some really, really positive results.”
The office of Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he “is looking forward to reviewing” the measure.
The council also expanded a one-year pilot program allowing small businesses to host acoustic musical performances without applying for a city license. Walsh worked with Wu on this expansion, and his office confirmed he supports it.
Other issues, including a proposed ban on non-reusable plastic bags, as well as an ordinance to better regulate for-profit lodging services like Airbnb, and were put on file to be picked up when the city council resumes next year.