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The stepped-up enforcement of a little-known tax has Idaho liquor retailers upset as past-due bills, complete with penalties and interest, are being sent out.

The federal levy has been on the books since 1866, but collection of the special occupational tax wasn't aggressively pursued until last year.That's when Congress nearly quintupled the yearly tax, from $54 to $250 for each establishment.

Billings were mailed out in Idaho, California and Oregon about six weeks ago.

Retailers in Washington, Arizona, Utah and Nevada will get their bad news in about a week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency collecting the tax.

"I call it highway robbery. It's the most outrageous thing I have ever seen," complained Boise restaurateur Peter Schott, whose upscale downtown eatery now owes $662 in taxes and penalties.

With protests flaring nationwide, a bill was approved Wednesday by the Senate Finance Committee that would give amnesty to fraternal groups, taverns and convenience stores for past-due levies.

The measure would prohibit the federal government from collecting unpaid balances and penalties accrued before Jan. 1, 1985.

As the law now stands, the government can order a liquor-selling business to pay taxes, penalties and interest dating back to the day it opened.

Affected are an estimated 600,000 retailers, ranging from neighborhood taverns and beer-peddling grocery stores to bed-and-breakfasts serving wine to guests.

The tax hike, implemented in January 1988, made enforcement cost-effective for the first time. But bureau officials say the real reason for clamping down is the relatively recent availability of computerized state liquor-license lists.

"We now feel we have sufficient information to proceed," said Bob Mosley, chief of field operations for the bureau's Western regional office in San Francisco.

Hardest hit by the sudden enforcement are mom-and-pop stores operating on shoestrings.

Gary Turner, owner of Boise's Roosevelt Market, confessed he has never paid the tax. He wasn't notified of it, either, until August, when he was fined $662.

"It's going to hurt," he said. "All of us little tiny guys got the same letter. My accountant hasn't even heard of it. We can't be penalized for something nobody knew."

The bureau counters that ignorance of the law is no excuse. The levy, it says, is referenced in the Internal Revenue Service's Tax Guide for Small Business.

"You have obligations to research the laws that affect you," Mosley argued. "I don't want to be smug, but it's just fundamental to me."