Alcohol excise tax stumbles

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

An effort to increase New Mexico’s alcohol excise tax for the first time in 30 years — a measure intended to help the state rein in a problem that takes the lives of more than six people a day — stumbled Monday when the House Taxation and Revenue Committee unanimously voted to table the bill. House Bill 230 calls for a flat 25-cent tax per serving, starting in July — a hefty change from tax rates that now range from a high of 15.5 cents for a serving of “fortified wine” to a low of 0.4 cents for a serving of spirits by a craft distiller that has sold less than 250,000 liters of booze. Most liquors are taxed at 7.1 cents per serving; wine at 6.7 cents and beer at 3.9 cents, according to state law. Advocates say the excise tax increase would lead to a drop in alcohol consumption and, therefore, save lives. The bill’s fiscal impact report, citing data from the New Mexico Department of Health, says 2,273 New Mexicans died from alcohol-related causes in 2021.

A missing ingredient

New Mexico is a violent state. It ranks among the worst for women murdered by men, child abuse and neglect are almost twice as common as they are nationwide, and its rate of suicide is one of the highest of any state. Last year, Albuquerque’s homicide rate shattered previous records, a 46% jump from 2020, and the state’s reached heights not experienced since 1986. That makes violence a potent political issue. In recent annual addresses, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller bridled at “spiking gun violence, fentanyl trafficking and treatment, domestic violence, and that persistent revolving door” and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for more police and stiffer penalties to “keep violent criminals behind bars.”

A crucial factor they didn’t mention was alcohol.

Poisonous myths

The forecasted low in Gallup is 17 degrees, cold even for February, but the man’s jacket is unzipped when the headlights find him slumped against a darkened storefront, a Broncos cap pulled over his eyes. “I’m going to get you some place warm,” Public Safety Officer Gabriel Lee Jr. says as he helps the man into the back of the police van. 

In a downtown hospital emergency room, where most clinicians attend to urgent injuries or illness rather than their underlying  causes, licensed professional clinical counselor Sheryl Livingston asks a Navajo patient what she enjoys most about alcohol. The patient laughs in surprise, then begins to open up. Outside a new drug and alcohol treatment facility in a sandy lot, a circle of men sit sweating beneath the domed canvas of a hogan, a pile of volcanic rocks fresh from the fire glowing faintly between them, their folded knees close enough to touch. Medicine man Robinson Tom asks for a prayer and a dozen voices mingle Diné and Spanish and English in the stifling heat.

An emergency in plain sight

Alcohol kills New Mexicans at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country — and no one can fully explain why. New Mexicans die of alcohol-related causes at nearly three times the national average, higher by far than any other state. Alcohol is involved in more deaths than fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamines combined. In 2020, it killed more New Mexicans under 65 than Covid-19 did in the first year of the pandemic — all told, 1,878 people. This outsized harm defies easy explanation.

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO: State Police Sgt. Toby LaFave speaks to a driver he pulled over on Interstate 40, under suspicion for driving while intoxicated.

Eyes on the road

“I want to see bad driving.” 

New Mexico State Police Lieutenant Kurtis Ward scanned traffic, weaving his Ford Expedition through northbound traffic on Interstate 25. It was 8:37pm on a wintry Friday night. A full moon was cresting the Sandias. 

The workday of the DWI Unit had just begun. 

“I watch for that car that’s doing something that’s different,” he said. “The one that stands out: I want to watch that car.”

For a generation, the state has spent tens of millions of dollars a year to curb intoxicated driving and its toll on New Mexicans. In-school programs and public information campaigns advertise the legal and physical consequences intoxicated drivers risk.

Group calls on Guv to put alcohol excise increase on special session agenda

There isn’t a date for the special session yet, but one non-profit that says increasing an alcohol excise tax increase can help solve the budget deficit is stepping up efforts to get it on the session’s agenda. Dr. Peter DeBenedittis, director of Alcohol Taxes Save Lives and Money, hand-delivered a letter to the governor’s office in Santa Fe asking that she put the proposal on the agenda for a special session. A special session is necessary to deal with a budget deficit nearing $500 million. Spokesmen for Gov. Susana Martinez’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment. Her public information officers typically do not respond to requests for comment from NM Political Report.