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Esquivel wants to fund more state police with a beer tax

SALEM - A Medford legislator is preparing a bill that would nearly double the number of state troopers through an increase in the state's beer tax.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, a Republican, said the new hires would nearly double the 330 state police officers now paid for out of the general fund. In 1976, the last year OSP was funded from the gas tax, there were 660 troopers.

"In 1976, I was told Jackson County had 36 troopers," Esquivel said. "Today we have 14."

Jackson County's population since then has increased by 75 percent.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski also is proposing an increase in trooper strength, with 139 new hires to be paid for with a surcharge on car insurance policies. But that proposal has received a cool response from legislators.

Oregon's beer tax is one of the lowest in the nation at six-tenths of a cent per bottle. Esquivel's proposal would add a penny each year over the next five years, which is the estimated amount of time it would take to recruit and train that many officers.

The former Medford City Council member said the higher beer tax would generate $42 million annually.

Between $30 million and $32 million would go for salaries and technological upgrades. Another $9 million to $10 million would be earmarked for county alcohol rehabilitation programs, with $250,000 apiece earmarked for detox centers in Medford, Portland, Salem and Eugene.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, is a strong supporter of the measure and probably will sign on as a co-sponsor. With Democrats in the majority, the Ashland lawmaker's new clout could have an impact on the legislation's chances.

"This proposal I believe gives us more time to figure out a good source of (permanent) funding for the state police," Esquivel said.

He said there has been talk of tapping into the lottery for the new positions, which would require a statewide vote.

If the state waited until the lottery funding was up for a vote, and it didn't pass, that would set the program back as much as four years without interim funding, Esquivel said.

"If it passes, then we could sunset the beer tax and take police entirely off the general fund," he said.

Esquivel said he is not proposing to increase the wine tax, which is now 12 cents a glass. Imposing the beer tax at the retail level instead of on wholesalers protects Oregon's burgeoning microbrew industry, he added.

Esquivel has met with the governor's staff on the proposal.

"We discussed this in great detail," he said. "The governor had made a statement that if anyone has any ideas, be sure to bring it forward. So I did."

Because of a backlog in the legislative counsel's office, which reviews proposed legislation, Esquivel hasn't seen a printed version of his bill.

He said he is tempted to make his proposal a "teamwork" bill to ensure it gets a public hearing and committee vote.

A teamwork bill must have at least two Democratic and two Republican sponsors.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem. Reach him at djepsen34@yahoo.com.