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Alcohol tax a buzzkill for drinkers, bartenders

| Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Another round, Marjorie. Quickly, please, before the price goes up.

Marjorie Zwolinski pours drinks at Jack's bar on the South Side, where you can still get a bottle of Budweiser for only $1.65. What you obviously can't get is much support for the exorbitant alcoholic beverage tax hikes proposed by both the city and state.

"They're having money problems. We're the ones who will end up getting penalized," Zwolinski says.

Regis Burke, 45, a man of ruddy complexion and graying hair, nurses a large can of Old Milwaukee as he stares out the window at a gray Carson Street morning. "I come here for the prices, and I come here for the people. They raise the prices, they're gonna drive away the people," he says ruefully.

City and state officials want to balance their budgets on the backs of people such as Burke and about 15 others whiling away their Tuesday morning in this Everyman's watering hole.

Mayor Tom Murphy has proposed a 10 percent drink tax to help the city close its gaping $60 million budget hole. The deficit problem could drive some despondent city residents to drink, making them an integral if unwilling part of the solution should the state Legislature enact the tax.

The Legislature also is mulling over an array of new levies proposed by Gov. Ed Rendell, including a hike in the malt beverage tax from 8 to 25 cents a gallon.

The state increase alone could cause draft and bottled beer prices to rise by at least 25 cents and drive up the cost of a case of beer by as much as $2, according to Jay Goldstein, president of the Pennsylvania Beer Wholesalers Association.

If one or both of these taxes become reality, the effect could be pronounced for the many customers of Jack's, a bar that probably would never close if state law permitted the eternal tavern. Jack's, open 365 days a year, is a place Santa could unwind with a Seven and Seven after depositing that last Elmo doll underneath a Christmas tree.

"It's a gathering place," Zwolinski says. "We get all types in here -- nurses, bakers, janitors, prison guards, air traffic controllers." She pauses to ring up a sale. "The air traffic controllers, they only stop in after work -- never before."

To a few of the patrons in Jack's enjoying a 10:30 a.m. beer or bourbon buzz, the liver probably is more hazy afterthought than vital organ. But Zwolinski has nothing but empathy for the primarily older crowd at this early hour.

"They're lonely. They don't want to sit at home and watch cable TV 24 hours a day," she says. "They're the ones who are going to be hurt the most if they raise the taxes."

Not that Zwolinski herself will escape entirely unscathed.

"See the gentleman over there?" she asks, pointing. He appears to be in his 60s. He's sipping a glass of beer while watching a cable feed of baseball highlights.

"He comes in here every morning, gets his three drinks and leaves me 35 cents. Every morning. If we have to raise prices, you think I'm still going to get that tip?" she says, already knowing the answer.

Although it hasn't happened yet, Zwolinski figures the proposed tax increases are a foregone conclusion.

"It's just like what happened when they raised the cigarette tax," she says. "They figure if you have the addiction, you're going to pay whatever you have to pay. It's not right."

Zwolinski lights another cigarette. Someone new steps up to the bar. She pours another round.

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