OGDEN -- Think of it as a use tax.
The Utah Legislature in January will be asked to consider a 5-cent tax on each can of beer consumed in the state.
The $14 million estimated to accrue annually would be used to offset the cost of housing in county jails those prisoners convicted of violating state law. The vast majority of those prisoners have an admitted alcohol problem.
The idea was floated Wednesday to the July interim meeting of the Legislature's Law Enforcement and Judiciary Subcommittee.
The proposal is coming from the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah Sheriffs' Association, the latter of which features former Weber County Attorney Reed Richards as its lawyer. Richards was once chief criminal deputy to Utah's attorney general.
Joining Richards in pitching the proposal to the subcommittee were eight county sheriffs, including Weber Sheriff Terry Thompson, as well as three Utah Department of Corrections administrators and Weber County Commissioner Jan Zogmeister.
"I'm calling it a use tax, although not everybody is," Richards said in an interview, meaning it will help offset the impact of alcohol abusers.
He cited a Weber State University study, completed in January, of the state's 29 county jails. That study shows 80 percent of the prisoners at the time had an alcohol problem.
The 80 percent weren't casual drinkers, Richards said, but rather were imbibers who had sought treatment or some kind of program for a drinking problem.
The 5 cents would apply to any 12-ounce serving of beer, whether retail, in clubs or from liquor stores, he said.
The approach was taken to the last session of the Legislature, he said, "but we didn't push it hard, just introduced the concept."
The funding of incarceration in counties for violations of state law "has been debated since the beginning of time," Richards said.
About seven years ago, the Legislature agreed by statute to fund 50 percent of the roughly $80-a-day cost of housing a state inmate in a county jail, he said. But the law said the 50 percent would be appropriated "subject to funding availability," Richards said, making the 50 percent rate flexible.
The total annual appropriation has varied over the years from $6 million, or about 18 percent, to the current figure of $11 million, or about 28 percent, he said.
The 5-cent tax's $14 million take would cover the 50 percent lawmakers agreed to, Richards said.
The funding is for "felony probation offenders" who could be sent to prison but are instead sentenced to county jails, he said.
They are separate from the category of inmates sentenced to state prison, then transferred to county jails because of overcrowding, which is handled by contract, Richards said.
"Support right now is hard to gauge," he said, with the proposal currently lacking a bill sponsor, but he added it's early yet for the January session of the Legislature.
Of some consolation may be that the tax is not a percentage, he said. The 5 cents would be tacked on whether the brew were a Heineken or Old Milwaukee. It's possible the 5 cents could be taken from existing tax revenues, he said, if there is too much fallout over a tax hike.