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Editorial: Liquor surcharge "tax" needs changed

The (Bend) Bulletin, Aug. 23:

You may not have known this, but Oregon doesn’t “tax” liquor. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission simply raises its margin on the stuff when the state needs more money. The taxes it does collect go to the federal government.

Thus, in 2009 the commission added a 50-cent surcharge to every bottle of liquor it sold and promised Oregonians the higher price would be temporary, lasting only about three months. It did so because lawmakers, forced to fill an $800 million budget hole, reduced the amount of money that was to go to the agents who operate liquor stores across the state.

Today, some five years later, the surcharge is not only in place, the liquor commission agreed Thursday to extend it two more years. Then the commission’s chairman, Rob Patridge, said he didn’t want the surcharge to become permanent.

We’d feel better about the whole thing if it were a bit more transparent — if, for example, the state identified its “margin” on liquor for what it really is — a tax. The revenue collected does go to keeping the current system afloat, to be sure, but the state’s general fund picks up more than half of what’s raised, cities and counties get another substantial chunk, and what’s left is spent on substance abuse treatment and the Oregon Wine Board.

We’d also feel a whole lot better if lawmakers, and not the appointed liquor control commission, had the final say on whether a tax increase, temporary or permanent, goes into effect. As things now stand, they don’t.

That can work to drinkers’ advantage, to be sure. In 2013, the OLCC refused to add 25 cents per bottle to the current surcharge, as lawmakers wished. Oregon drinkers already pony up some $23.09 per gallon in state margins on hard spirits, the second-highest rate — behind Washington — in the nation, according to CNN.

As things now stand, the OLCC is something of a law unto itself where liquor taxes are concerned. Its unelected members are not accountable to anybody, and that’s bad — so bad that it’s time to look at revamping the whole system.

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