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We’re running out of sins to tax in Conn.

Over the years, sin has been very profitable for the State of Connecticut, especially the varieties that attract large numbers of sinners. But we may be running low on sins suitable for taxation.

The wages of sin that come to the state’s coffers range from the traditional sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol to the more modern sources of sinful revenue provided by the legalization of lotteries, casinos, off-track betting parlors, charitable games and even the more exotic and less successful forays into jai alai frontons and a greyhound racing track.

Sin taxing is not new. The 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith, in his “Wealth of Nations,” recommended that necessities for basic human living like salt and molasses go untaxed while taxes on luxuries like tobacco and whiskey might not only be revenue sources but also have the added virtue of encouraging fathers to smoke and drink less. 

In America, the first sin taxes were enacted to help pay for the War of Independence, but the whiskey tax enraged citizens sufficiently to foment the Whiskey Rebellion of western farmers. As a result, these taxes came and went until the 1860s, when sin taxes were passed to pay for the Civil War.

History tells us 30 to 40 percent of the federal government’s income in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came from the tax on alcohol, which prompted the moralists promoting the prohibition of alcohol to support a federal income tax as a replacement. 

After the first income tax was enacted in 1913, the Anti-Saloon League pushed harder for the prohibition of alcohol and, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, “World War I helped stir the pot. Since most brewers were of German descent, the Anti-Saloon League used this to equate migrants and drinking with being anti-American.” The result was 14 years of Prohibition and the diversion of alcohol tax revenues to Al Capone and other sons of immigrants.

The Puritans in colonial Connecticut were quick to tax alcohol but, having developed their own tobacco leaf, the General Court discouraged competition from southern colonies with a rule that “no person within this jurisdiction shall (smoke) any other tobacco.”

Tobacco became sinfully taxable with the introduction of cigarettes in the 19th century, and by 1940, most states had passed cigarette taxes. Today, Connecticut has a whopping tax of $3.45 on a pack of cigarettes, second only to New York’s $4.35. 

But old-time sin taxes weren’t enough to fund the taxers and spenders in state government, and since the 1970s, we’ve seen the constant development of new sin taxes, which put government in the strange position of becoming enablers of sins in order to get taxes from those who engage in them.

We’re talking about gambling, which used to be inconvenient, if not particularly difficult, to engage in when it was illegal, but thanks to the generosity of the enabler state of Connecticut, it’s now within easy reach of everyone.

All of us have seen the desperate-looking guy in a convenience store, spending lots more than a dollar or two buying tickets for the various lottery “games” meant to lure him with the hope one of them may hit for him. The state doesn’t encourage this kind of irresponsible wagering. Its conscience is cleared by urging customers to “gamble responsibly.”

They gamble responsibly enough to have raised $8.8 billion in lottery revenue alone since legalization in 1972. Since the 1990s, the two casinos have added nearly $7 billlion more to the general fund, according to the Gaming (not gambling) Commission. The total from all forms of “gaming” since the expansion of sin taxing four decades ago is a very nice $16.2 billion, according to the Gaming Commission. 

Despite the best efforts of state government to promote sin with more creative lottery games, the possibility of an additional casino, seven-day liquor sales and ever-higher taxes on a pack of cigarettes, sin revenue has been in a state of decline in the State of Enablers. Casino revenues from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun peaked before the Great Recession of 2008 and have been dropping ever since, and state receipts from alcohol have been flat. Tobacco tax levies have dropped about 15 percent despite the state’s valiant effort to become the top tobacco taxer in the nation. A talked-about legalization of recreational marijuana could bring in a modest $30 million or so, but it’s not expected to happen this year.

This leaves Connecticut looking for more sinners or new sins. There’s always something. Russia once taxed the length of its men’s beards, something for Connecticut to consider if marijuana doesn’t work out. 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.