Officials back booze tax


A Gator City bartender walks through a crowd of gator fans for beer refills as the crowd thickens at Gator City bar for the University of Florida versus George Mason Final Four Tournament game on Saturday, April 1, 2006.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 at 11:42 p.m.

Gainesville officials are taking a shot at taxing alcohol to fund the fight against underage drinking.

Facts

Gainesville Alcohol Arrests

Underage Drinking
- 2008: 925
- 2007: 1,007
- 2006: 906

Open Containers
- 2008: 1,152
- 2007: 724
- 2006: 1,025

Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said Monday that she's seeking a change in state law to allow the city to implement a per-drink alcohol tax. The revenue would fund law enforcement efforts to combat alcohol-related violations.

But Hanrahan cautioned that the state's powerful alcohol industry lobby could make such a change difficult.

"Personally, I'm geared up for that fight," she said.

She announced the effort at a meeting of the Community Alcohol Coalition. The group, created in 2005 in the wake of alcohol-related student deaths, includes officials from city, law enforcement and the University of Florida.

UF President Bernie Machen signaled his support for the tax and said he's also pushing for efforts beyond the city. Alcohol-related problems at the annual Florida-Georgia football game have led some to suggest moving the game out of Jacksonville, he said.

The game, informally known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, had been marred by alcohol-related deaths in recent years. Machen said he'd prefer to keep the game in Jacksonville but will meet with that city's officials to see if they'll emulate Gainesville's successful efforts to address the problem.

"It is safer here," he said. "The question is whether we can make it that safe in Jacksonville."

The efforts come as Gainesville gets ready to implement a new law that would punish bars that habitually serve underage drinkers. The City Commission voted Jan. 15 unanimously in favor of the ordinance and is scheduled to take a final vote next week.

Under the ordinance, bars with repeated underage drinking violations would be prevented from admitting customers under 21 years old after 9 p.m.

The threshold would be 10 violations in three months for bars that have occupancies of more than 200 customers, and five violations for smaller bars. The law would take effect April 1.

City officials said the ordinance represents the extent of permissible efforts without changing state law.

"It is almost the only thing we can do," Hanrahan said.

Officials have previously sought a change in state law to restrict drink specials and implement other restrictions on alcohol, to no avail. In fact, Florida lawmakers cut a previous per-drink tax before repealing it completely in 2006.

Alcohol lobbyists signaled their opposition to changes. The statewide tax was an "administrative nightmare" to collect, and allowing cities to implement their own taxes would be worse, said Mitchell Rubin, executive director of the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association.

"That's just a nonstarter for the industry," he said.

Hanrahan said Gainesville's unique situation means it could use the revenue from a drink tax. College students make up more than half the city population, and half the land in the city is exempt from property taxes that fund law enforcement.

Gainesville police have focused their efforts on six bars with high numbers of underage drinking violations. Capt. Lonnie Scott said those bars have shown they'll continue committing violations because of a lack of repercussions with their state liquor licenses.

"It's just a cost of doing business for them," he said.

Hanrahan said she met state alcohol officials and alcohol industry lobbyists to see if more can be done under existing law. She said passing a drink tax or making other changes to the law would be more difficult.

"Florida's alcohol lobby is extremely powerful," she said.

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