How control states use liquor markups as secret taxes

Today, R Street's Jarrett Dieterle released a policy paper on how control states use liquor mark-ups as a form of backdoor taxation. He argues that government-imposed mark-ups are analogous to taxes since they are often used to fund the government at large:

In states that hold a monopoly on the sale of spirits, liquor prices usually are set by a formula that includes at least one of three different components: taxes, fees and price markups. Markups are formally enacted by liquor regulators—usually in the form of a board—who are tasked to oversee alcohol sales in the state. In recent years, governments in these so-called “control states” have relied more and more on the revenue derived from these markups, as state lawmakers frequently have included calls for higher markups in their budget proposals.

These artificially created price bumps exceed the level of increase that would be sustained on the open market and the revenue from these increases often accrues directly to a state’s general fund. In this way, they function very similarly to taxes. Furthermore, liquor markups are readily distinguishable from nearly every other form of government-imposed fee, since they target a good designed for private consumption. Perhaps worse is that, despite their clear resemblance to taxes, markups frequently do not need to be ratified by state legislatures in the way that other taxes do. This allows lawmakers in control states effectively to hide the cost from state taxpayers.

The rest of the paper can be found here.

Reason's Eric Boehm also penned an article specifically about Pennsylvania's liquor mark-up system, which cites Dieterle's paper and suggests that such mark-ups could be illegal since they weren't ratified by the state legislature:

 A new paper published Thursday by Jarrett Dieterle, a fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C., questions whether state-run liquor operations charging what amounts to secret taxes in the form of price mark-ups on alcohol are illegal.

The PLCB used to apply a 30 percent mark-up on the wholesale price of liquor, but recently switched to a variable markup that fluctuates from product to product. Either way, that added fee is "a tax in everything but name," says Dieterle.

The mark-up system lacks accountability, because taxpayers can't remove PLCB board members at the ballot box. A lawsuit built on Dieterle's premise could undermine the state's ability to continue collecting this unseen tax.

"This setup ultimately allows state officials to hide the bill from taxpayers and to rely on what amounts to backdoor taxes to plug budget gaps, all while avoiding politically contentious policy decisions," Dieterle says.

More here.