Adirondack: Have a brew, support higher education

Jan 3, 2020 – Just think: Every time you crack open a cold one, you could be supporting higher education in New York a little bit more.

That’s the idea behind one New York City assemblyman’s bill to raise the state’s tax on beer — to double it, in fact — and to dedicate those funds to the SUNY and CUNY college system.

Before you flip out, know that New York has one of the nation’s lower beer tax rates: 15 cents a gallon, regardless of price or quality — from the most exquisite craft brew to the most mass-produced grog. That works out to about 1.4 cents per 12 ounce bottle or can. The highest beer tax, Tennessee’s $1.29, is more than eight-and-a-half times New York’s, followed by Alaska at $1.07 and Alabama at $1.05, according to a recent report by Gannett newspapers.

Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, D-Manhattan, proposes to raise New York’s beer tax to 30 cents per gallon, which would be about 2.8 cents per bottle or can, more in the middle of the pack with other states. It would also bring it in line with New York’s tax on wine, which is already 30 cents per gallon.

More importantly, Epstein estimates the tax would generate almost twice as much revenue for state colleges, from $51 million to $96 million.

That’s a very small portion of the $7.6 billion New York spent on higher education this fiscal year, but still, to us it seems like a fair and minor sacrifice for something very important.

New York’s 64 SUNY campuses, 30 community colleges and 26 CUNY campuses are a critical lifeline for our economy. New York has more of them than almost any state, and they are more affordable than most, too. They keep a large portion of New Yorkers well educated and train people for all kinds of jobs and trades — although the potential exists for way more training opportunities. And the campuses are major economic engines for small towns and cities across the state.

New York state is facing a $6 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year. We strongly believe the vast majority of that should be made up from cuts. Trimming high leadership salaries and benefits, tax break giveaways that aren’t worth the cost, and unproductive programs will improve our state government’s health. We would even be open to cuts in the SUNY system as long as they came from things like presidents’ salaries rather than student aid or essential education.

In general, we don’t need more taxes, as New York is arguably the most taxed state overall.

But as always, the solution will have to involve a mix of cuts and tax increases, hopefully heavier on the former. As for the latter, we’re willing to accept matching the beer tax with the wine tax.

The beverage industry and the millions of people who enjoy its products won’t be seriously hurt by this little proposal. Besides, New York has stepped up to boost the beverage industry into a gigantic success story these last few years. Breweries, wineries and cideries have popped up all over the place, often doing great economic good for upstate New York towns and cities that really need a boost. That’s partly a national trend and partly thanks to New York leaders such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who have eliminated outdated legal obstacles. As of December, New York had 1,153 craft beverage makers, including beer, wine, liquor and cider — up 68% from 686 in 2014, according to the state Liquor Authority.

The Gannett report said Epstein’s bill “will likely face an uphill climb garnering support in the state Legislature and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo,” but we don’t think it deserves to get poured down the drain so quickly.