Swallowing Resentment | Vox Pop | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Swallowing Resentment 

Drinking the Kool-Aid on the drink tax

I don't know if you've noticed, but people here like to drink. More than one comic has noted that there's an abundance of churches and bars here ... plus some churches that get turned into bars.

Now, if you were trying to raise money -- for mass transit, say -- it's a good bet that you could reap a windfall by taxing the drinkers. On the other hand, one could argue, it's unfair. Why should only the drinkers be taxed? What about the smokers? What about the property owners? What about those who own automobiles?

I'm not normally one to defend taxation. I'm a cheap bastard -- I'd like to keep my shekels for my own self, thanks very much. But I have a car, something a lot of people can't afford. That's why we have buses, so people without means -- or people who also like to save a shekel or two -- can get where they're going, freeing up traffic for the rest of us.

A lot of people hate the Port Authority because there's been shitloads of waste and mismanagement there over the years. Overly generous benefits are bankrupting the whole system. Not to worry: County Executive Dan Onorato is on the case. He has demanded concessions from union workers in the upcoming contract negotiations. I don't know whether he'll get them, but as a former county controller and CPA, he's a numbers-crunching bottom-line kinda guy. And I believe the waste at the Port Authority genuinely pisses him off.

But the Port Authority is still going to need some money. And when it comes to raising taxes, the state legislature has the power to limit what we in Allegheny County can do. For whatever reason, they severely limited Danny O's ability to raise taxes. They said, "Danny boy, these are your options. You can raise the per-drink tax on bars and restaurants 10 percent. You can also jack up the price of the cost of renting a car. And that should raise enough cash to keep those buses running."

So here we have our dilemma. Nobody cares much about the tax on rental cars, because it's mostly out-of-towners who pay it. But you can hear the cry all over town: "Yinz are telling me my freakin' whiskey sour is gonna cost more? That ain't right!" Hence the revolt of bar and restaurant owners, combined with the resentment of the average slug who likes to drink in bars.

I count myself among the average slugs. But I'm a practical slug too.

There is no such thing as a perfectly fair tax, and we can't throw the poor people and other transit riders under the bus. The legislature has limited Danny O's options, so he did what he had to do. He rammed the new fees through county council like Jerome Bettis used to ram it into the end zone, back when the Stillers still had a power running game. (That of course is a problem too. But, I digress.)

Now there is at least one other option Dan could have tried: raising property taxes. But despite having pissed off drinkers -- the most sizable contingent in Western Pennsylvania's pool of potential voters -- Danny isn't as dumb as he looks. Property owners vote. And they've been boned a lot in recent years, what with the complex manipulation of the weird property-tax system here by county governments and the courts. Dan may be dumb, but he's not stupid. He is not going to raise property taxes, because that's the only thing even less popular than raising the drink tax.

Some bar owners have been putting up "wanted" posters with photos of Dan and the county council members who voted for the tax. Radio talkers are still beating it to death. KDKA radio's ever-clever Round Mound of Sound, Kevin Miller, has nicknamed Onorato "Dan, Dan the Taxman." What a card.

Here's the thing: The drink tax is legal. It's here to stay. And in this region of drunks, it's a safe bet it will work. To paraphrase Nancy Sinatra, whose father was no slouch in the booze department, these folks are made for drinkin'. And that's just what they'll do.

The day people stop drinking here is the day people stop bitching here. I rest my case.

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