In the Doghouse

Rhode Island Legislators Not Just Drunk On Power

Reports of rampant alcohol use in the chamber surface amidst efforts to repeal sales tax on beer.

Duck boats driving right into bays full of beerThe Rhode Island legislature is as likely to engage in libations as deliberations, according to an interview given by freshman representative Moira Walsh to WPRO News. "You cannot operate a motor vehicle when you've had two beers," she said, "but you can make laws that affect people's lives forever when you're half in the bag?"

Despite dismissive comments from House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi, the reports jibe with patterns among other lawmakers. California briefly had to provide free transportation to its legislators after a rash of DUI arrests. In Washington, D.C., nearly half of all congressional staff drink at social events as part of the job. As one respondent put it, "Parties are work." Only two states—Idaho and Oklahoma—forbid lawmakers to drink on the job.

This culture of wetting beaks and signing bills may help explain why Rhode Island is considering repealing its beer tax, citing business lost to neighboring Massachusetts. Massachusetts has no beer sales tax, making Representative Blake Filippi have nightmares of people running to the border to stock up on cases. But it seems Rep. Filippi is not having the right nightmares—according to SAMHSA, Rhode Island has the fourth highest rate of underage binge drinking in the country, far in excess of the national rate (though much-envied Massachusetts isn't far behind). Meanwhile, 92.6% of Rhode Islanders in need of alcohol abuse treatment never receive it.

Research has shown time and time again that a very simple and straightforward way to both reduce consumption and fund treatment is to levy greater alcohol taxes. "Beating Massachusetts," on the other hand, has little demonstrable effect on public health. The need to raise, not lower, alcohol taxes should be evident to Rep. Filippi and his colleagues. We here at Alcohol Justice cannot imagine what could be clouding their judgment.

READ MORE about the power of smart alcohol tax policy.