CONGRESS NOW has to come up with the specific taxes to fulfill the promises in the plan to control the budget deficit. It is most likely to gather the usual collection of cats and dogs -- small increases in many taxes, the more obscure the better. But the government needs more money than that can raise. There's a better way to do it. How about the Public Health and Environmental Protection Revenue Enhancement Act of 1987?
Raising the liquor and cigarette taxes would be a contribution to public health as well to public solvency. To the extent that higher gasoline taxes discourage driving, they will also diminish ozone and carbon monoxide levels in all the cities that are now in violation of the Clean Air Act.
The liquor and cigarette taxes deserve special attention. Over the years, Congress has allowed inflation to erode them severely. If the excise taxes on alcohol were raised only to the real -- that is, inflation adjusted -- level of 25 years ago, they would be four times a high as they are today. The present low tax on alcohol will raise about $5.9 billion this year. Quadrupling it would not raise revenue proportionately since higher prices would dampen sales. But that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for the country. To take cigarette taxes back to the real level of 25 years ago would double them, bringing in something close to $4 billion. Since cigarettes constitute one of the greatest threats to public health in this country, the benefits would not be limited to the purely fiscal.
The gasoline tax has kept up with inflation over the past quarter of a century, but in those years the country has swung to a perilous reliance on imports. Since considerations of national security don't seem to have recruited many votes for a stiffer gasoline tax, let's set them aside and talk about the environment and smog instead. Anyone for cleaner air? Each penny per gallon raises $1 billion for the Treasury.
The search for tax revenues has become excruciatingly difficult only because President Reagan and Congress make it so. Both want to raise taxes without seeming to raise them, resulting in the present humiliating practice of midnight hunts for cats, dogs and other small game. As always, the best and fairest solution is to raise income taxes but, since neither party will entertain the thought at present, second-best will have to do. Many familiar taxes have been much higher in the past with no visible damage to the economy. They could be raised much higher in the future with great benefits, and not to the Treasury alone