SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA Anheuser-Busch Cos. Joined retailers and distributors from around Montana Friday in opposing a bill to more than double the state excise tax on beer produced by large breweries. Money raised by the tax hike proposed by Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, would pay for drug and alcohol treatment and prevention programs, as well as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Her proposal would increase the tax on breweries that produce more than 20,000 barrels of beer a year from $4.30 a barrel to $9 a barrel. “The tax on a pack of cigarettes is 21 times higher than the tax on a six-pack (of beer),” Kaufmann told the Senate Taxation Committee. “I think it’s time for us to do this.” Committee members took no immediate action on the bill. The beer industry assailed Kaufmann’s measure as an unfair tax that will be passed on to Montana consumers, retailers and malt barley growers. “If you increase taxes you lower consumption, and if you lower consumption you will decrease sales and decrease employment,” said Kevin Devine, owner of Devine Bros Distributing Inc. in Great Falls. David Tweet, regional manager for Busch Agricultural Resources Inc., said higher beer taxes would be “clearly inconsistent” with investments Anheuser- Busch has made in Montana’s agricultural economy. The company contracts with 675 malt barley growers in the state and has storage facilities in Conrad, Fairfield and Sidney and a seed plant in Fairfield that was recently rebuilt. “I just hate to see anything happen in this state to harm our agricultural industries,” Missoula business owner Linda Vap said. “We have so few things going for us. We can’t be just a service economy.” Representatives for the Montana Convenience Store Association, the Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Grain Growers Association, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Retail Association also opposed the bill. Its lone supporter, parent Chris Menard, called the tax a small price to pay for drug and alcohol treatment and prevention and said many treatment centers have waiting lists of people needing help. “Let the users pay for the costs of the services,” she said. Kaufmann said the state beer tax hasn’t been increased since 1987, and added her bill intentionally excludes small breweries. Microbrewers came out in force against a 2005 bill that would have increased the beer tax by about 5 cents per can across the board to pay for state treatment and prevention efforts. That bill was tabled by the Senate Taxation Committee. The bill is Senate Bill 559.