The recent triad of budgets submitted by Washington’s two legislative bodies and the Governor’s office substantively agree on only one thing: times are tough all over. The proposed extension of the rapacious tax imposed three years ago on the biggest brewers selling beer in our state–passed without fanfare or public awareness in the closing instants of the legislative session–has further divided both opinion and intent. The most draconian proposal–the Governor’s–would keep the “temporary” tax in place in perpetuity for the large brewers, while rewarding the hard work and jobs-creation undertaken by our state’s smallest brewers with an increase to four and a quarter times what they are paying now. The Governor, incidentally, claims to value Washington beer culture and its proponents at the same time he’s attempting to influence the passage of legislation that would almost certainly put many of them out of business–the destruction of the village, I suppose, through liberation–of funds.
Next on the Tough Love scale is the budget offered by the House, which would merely double the rate of tax paid by small Washington brewers, already among the country’s most heavily taxed. The Senate, nominally controlled by the Republicans, allows the lapse of the temporary tax without changing the rate of tax on small brewers.
You can imagine the amount of rumor, intimation, innuendo and out-and-out statement (sort of) that the mix of big brewers, small brewers, Democrats, Republicans, committee chairs, lobbyists, advocates and detractors has engendered as the whole drama has unrolled. One might even suspect the legislators themselves of having fostered a mood of mistrust and divisiveness where the large and small brewers are concerned. And not all reactions have been as cool and considered as they might have been. Feeling themselves to be fighting for their lives, some among the small brewers have hung their hopes exclusively on the maintenance of the differential between what they and the big brewers have traditionally paid, while seeming to care less about the fortunes of their larger associates. Rumors abound regarding machinations by the big brewers–including the threat of a referendum aimed at eliminating the tax entirely–rumors roundly denied by representatives of both Anheuser-Busch InBev and SAB Miller-Coors.
But a funny thing has happened in the course of all this. The large and small brewers selling beer in Washington state have united in opposition to a tax which would collectively vault them into a stratosphere of excise exaction. Not only that, allied trade organizations such as the Beer Institute, the Washington Restaurant Association and the Hop Growers Association have all lined up, too. Whatever the competitive realities of the marketplace, in fact, brewers of all sizes, from nano to mega, streetcorner to multi-national, stand beside each other in the unanimous crying of foul where the various proposed tax hikes are concerned. If anything, the efforts by our government bodies and offices to divide and tax has brought brewers at every level closer together.
These government entities will claim the issue is funding education, that somehow the fate of our schools is tied up in the rate of tax demanded of brewers of beer. To hear them talk, it’s an either-or situation: you can fund education or you can allow brewers to continue doing what they do–to my mind producing top-quality local products that benefit local economies, and creating jobs. Though obvious, let it be said: to be for beer and small brewers is not to be against education. To suggest an anti-schools attitude on the part of brewers rightfully horrified in the face of an industry-threatening tax is to willfully confuse the issue. Where’s the money to come from? I’m not a legislator. What I do is make beer and hire my neighbors, pay taxes and vote, appropriate to the worthiness of those creating public policy and crafting budgets.
This Friday a rally has been called for noon in Olympia to call attention to the tax issues facing all brewers. Organized both by small brewers and the large body of supporting beer enthusiasts, attempts will be made to gain the ears of legislators desperate to resolve things but in my experience generally these days not answering calls. The big brewers as well will be on hand. The last time this issue arose, a decision was made without the input of the public–or business community–concerned. This time at least we’ve made sure they know where we stand. Let’s make sure we stand together, not in the factions that make it easier for budgeteers, legislators, and executives to pick us off one by one, tier by tier. This isn’t an issue of big versus small brewers; it’s one of political opportunism, of sacrificing what it’s taken us all thirty years to accomplish as small brewers at the altar of trumped-up righteousness and obfuscation. The story we have to tell is a strong one, of creativity, entrepreneurship, of collegiality and community-building. Let’s concentrate on what makes us great and why we should keep on doing what we do. The tax proposals before the legislature right now promise to make that extremely difficult.
Head Brewer and Co-founder
Elysian Brewing Co.