Lawmakers say alcohol on 2023 session agenda

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The alcohol department at a grocery store Albuquerque, NM in 2022. CREDIT: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth

Powerful state lawmakers are signaling their desire to address New Mexico’s worst-in-the-nation rate of alcohol-related deaths in the upcoming session, including by changing how alcohol is taxed.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, chair of the influential Senate Finance Committee, said he supports raising statewide alcohol taxes, among the most effective measures for curbing excessive drinking. Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, agreed the state’s rates “are probably not at the level they need to be,” and raising them “should be part of the solution” to the state’s alcohol crisis.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chair of the House committee that crafts the state budget, acknowledged “we do not have the balance right” between businesses that profit from selling alcohol and people harmed by consuming it and said in the coming session she expected “legislation to come through that is going to cost money.”

In August, lawmakers on health, criminal justice, and economic committees voiced concern about New Mexico’s alcohol problems. Many attributed the flurry of interest to a New Mexico In Depth investigative series, which showed the state’s alcohol-related death rate has risen continuously for decades and is far above any other state’s.

“I really didn’t realize how bad we were on alcohol deaths until I read all of those articles,” said Stewart. “Obviously we’re not doing enough to counter it.”

Making excessive drinking more costly

Experts say raising taxes to make alcohol more expensive is crucial for discouraging excessive drinking but for decades, lawmakers have largely ignored this tool. New Mexico taxes alcohol by the volume sold rather than as a percentage of its price so as inflation pushes up the cost of purchasing alcohol, taxes make up a smaller fraction of the tab. Because lawmakers haven’t updated the rates since 1994, they have fallen to their lowest point in a generation.

At present, about half the revenue raised by alcohol taxes goes to the state’s general fund but Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in an email that next session it “must be a priority” to ensure those revenues are earmarked exclusively to treatment and harm reduction.

Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, said she plans to re-introduce a bill she filed in the 2022 session that would direct the alcohol tax revenue currently going to the general fund to a new alcohol and substance abuse prevention and treatment fund.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, a member of the House tax committee and an influential voice on tax policy, said earlier this year he would not support a tax increase until the revenues are redirected to addressing the harms of drinking. “As a fiscal conservative, I can accept and support additional taxation that addresses that social ill but where I cross the line is, ‘now let’s use the tax code to discourage people from using that product.’”

Other lawmakers have proposed changing how the state taxes alcohol rather than simply raising the rates. Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said taxing alcohol by volume rather than price was an “archaic” practice. In an August 8 hearing of the Economic Development and Policy Committee, he explained, “if we were to change—not necessarily raise taxes—but change the way we tax alcohol, similar to the way we tax cannabis, where it’s [gross receipts tax] plus a surtax on the consumer, I think that would be the way to go.”

Gathering expertise and maintaining momentum

No single measure will reverse the state’s climbing death rates, experts say, and even a comprehensive approach will require years of effort. Former state epidemiologist Michael Landen suggested the Legislature create a task force modeled after the state’s Overdose Prevention and Pain Management Advisory Council that would “keep the recommendations coming and the evaluation moving forward.”

House Majority Leader Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, supports such a task force, he said, but emphasized it needed enough teeth to ensure recommendations lead to action. “I certainly would not want to be here talking 20 years from now about a report a task force did that sat on a desk somewhere.”

Martinez also called for investments to right age-old inequities, which he said were at the root of excessive drinking in the state, particularly by Native residents. “We don’t control what happened in the past, but we certainly can control what our government does now.”

Navigating the politics

Candidates for governor sidestepped questions about the state’s alcohol crisis. The campaign of Republican Mark Ronchetti did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment. In response to questions about specific policies Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham would support to curb excessive alcohol use, a spokesperson emailed, “the governor is pursuing all paths that would lower the risk of alcohol deaths for New Mexicans.”

To date, Lujan Grisham’s legacy on alcohol is a 2021 package of reforms that included provisions allowing home delivery of alcohol and expanding liquor sales by restaurants. The bill passed with bipartisan support but some lawmakers have voiced regrets.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who voted for the bill, said “we’ve just made the problem worse.” He told his colleagues at an August 24 hearing of the Courts, Corrections and Justice committee, that “we ought to figure out the consequences of what we’ve done, and I just right now can’t think of anything that we’ve done to solve the problem.”

Some of the governor’s allies said they expected her to rise to the challenge if she is re-elected. “I don’t see her shying away from trying to help solve these problems,” said Stewart.

Even with top lawmakers focused on the state’s alcohol crisis, there’s no guarantee proposed reforms will survive the 2023 legislative session. “When you start talking alcohol and the money that alcohol brings in,” Muñoz said, “it riles a lot of people up.”

In 2017, a short-lived effort to raise alcohol taxes died quickly after alcohol businesses refused to negotiate and lawmakers tabled the measure.

To address what many see as a cozy relationship between lobbyists and the state’s volunteer legislators, who depend on special interests to wine and dine them during the session, Martinez said a group of lawmakers will introduce a series of bills to pay legislators a salary and provide them with staff, which he said would reduce the undue influence of industry.

Alcohol will be discussed more at an October 6-7 meeting of the Revenue Stabilization and Tax Committee and a November 28-30 meeting of the Legislative Health and Social Services Committee, lawmakers said.

Meanwhile, Cervantes exhorted his colleagues to keep up the pressure. “We’re in a crisis,” he said during the legislative hearing in August. “All of us in this room should be the one sounding that crisis.”

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