Two months ago, the United States acknowledged a somber anniversary. October 7 marked the eleventh year of the War in Afghanistan. That conflict is coupled with a nearly eight year invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, where combat operations ended one year ago. Over two million of our finest have been deployed overseas, often multiple times with less dwell time between than ever before. 6,642 American soldiers will not come home alive. Over 50,000 have come home wounded; 16,000 severely.
When troops complete their tour(s), just under 72,000 of them come home to Alaska. While our state’s unemployment rates for veterans have dipped well below the national average, to 6.7%, our returning troops face massive problems. Suicide rates for veterans have eclipsed combat related deaths as the leading cause of fatality – nearly a 22% increase over last year. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and PTSD are huge problems that contribute to that statistic. These are our troops. Their problems should be considered inseparably our problems.
Put simply, we need to do more for our troops as they return home. And we are nearing a period in American history where more of our heroes will be returning home than at any point since the close of WWII to a reality where we’re already failing to address the myriad tolls that war takes on the men and women who fight them. This is a basic function of government – perhaps the most basic – the we cannot continue failing to fulfill, during a time that will demand more attention than ever before.
In lieu of having a functional federal government able to pass logical things like the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and being burdened with a municipality that has all but rendered any sort of sales tax impossible (any such change would require a three fifths vote of approval by the public), the burden of implementing measures to aide our returning veterans falls to the state.
Our delegation in Juneau would face significant hurdles too – of both political and procedural natures. But the only other option is “Go Fish.” So, let’s look at our best option; something that could absolutely be done with a courageous dose of political fortitude.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Alaskans enjoy a night out; dinner and a show. College kids indulge. Seniors take part. It’s one arena where singles, stag parties, blind dates, and sixtieth wedding anniversaries all align.
My wife and I enjoy heading out to places like Table 6 or Spenard Roadhouse before taking in a movie at Century 16 or Tikahtnu. We don’t do it often, but it’s a nice once-or-twice-a-month event, whenever we have a few extra bucks laying around.
We could just as easily save money, eat in, and watch television. But it’s nice to get outside and socialize with friends and family somewhere beyond our living room. It’s a luxury we are lucky enough to treat ourselves to every now and again. And the term “luxury” is the most pertinent part of the act. If taking care of our returning troops is a requirement, then it is best offset by redirecting a small amount of revenue from a luxury.
In 2012, the Alaska restaurant industry is projected to bring in $1.2 billion in sales. The movie industry (using the most recent census data available; 2007) brings in $42,124,000. Roughly, the annual revenue raised by a going out for dinner and a show is around $1.6 billion.
When I receive the check at the end of dinner, I reach for my credit card and struggle mightily to figure out about what twenty-percent of the overall charge is. I then add that in as a gratuity. Twenty percent is a large, self imposed, tax. But I acknowledge the service of a hard working wait staff and afford that percentage as a recognition of the hard work. It’s part of the transaction.
That seems like a good opportunity to also remember that there are two million men and women who’ve spent time Over There, experiencing things that most will understand only through casually watching Hollywood depictions over buttery popcorn. There are men and women who don’t get to make the choice to enjoy a nice night out on the town. Some of whom are back in the state now (with many more coming as Afghanistan draws down) struggling to find housing or employment or peace of mind.
What if we included a gratuity in that check for them too? (With an obvious exemption for military!)
A simple 3% flat tax, collected at the point of sale, for restaurant tabs, movie tickets, and theater concession stand sales could amount to $48 million in state funds that could be added to the General Fund appropriated every year to the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The DMVA could then appropriate the funds through Community Development Block Grants to worthy organizations, like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America or Vets Help Vets. This would create a steady stream of revenue flowing to veterans’ programs – something we should all readily get behind. Something we should have enacted before over a decade of war, not after.
Alaska expressly prohibits dedicated funds (Article 9, Section 7) – meaning that we can’t directly levy a new tax for a specific purpose for an unset amount of time. But it is well within the legislature’s power to enact a tax on restaurant receipts and movie sales narrowly intended for use specific to improving the quality of life for our troops. It’s not all that different, conceptually, from our alcohol and tobacco taxes, which were grandfathered in
The legislature, in other words, couldn’t explicitly dedicate the funds; the monies would just have to consistently find themselves appropriated for the same general purpose each year. It would be an annual responsibility to renew their commitment to fund worthwhile causes until they found it sufficient to sunset the tax altogether. Something tells me it wouldn’t go unnoticed if an ill-advised elected official attempted to use the revenue for another purpose. Something additionally tells me that official would face a pretty negative reaction from his colleagues and constituents.
We need to make sure that, as a state, we prepare to deal with the large amount of veterans coming home to Alaska in the coming months, and better equip ourselves to serve the ones here now, struggling to integrate back into civilian life. By adopting a beneficial revenue stream that, in a small way, tethers us to our service men and women, we would be stating in no uncertain terms that no one gets left behind at home either. Not in Alaska.
And if embrace the idea that dedicating a night per week, or month, to going out for dinner and a movie helps bolster that commitment, maybe we’ll start dining out more often; pumping money directly into the local economy. It’s economic stimulus. But more importantly, it’s giving back to, and re-dedicating efforts to assist, those whom we owe everything. It’s for the troops.
A Warriors’ Fund.