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NH alcohol fund faces repeal effort


Some on the front lines of the state's substance abuse crisis say they were stunned when a House subcommittee moved last week to repeal a law requiring that a percentage of state liquor profits be used to fund prevention, treatment and recovery programs.

The House Finance subcommittee that deals with the budget for social services recommended giving the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery around $6 million a year to distribute to programs in the next biennium.

But it also passed an amendment to repeal the state's so-called "alcohol fund" law.

Tym Rourke chairs the governor's commission, an advisory group that includes lawmakers, agency heads, medical experts, treatment professionals and members of the public. It is tasked with distributing money from the alcohol fund to programs such as clinical treatment, recovery support, prevention services and juvenile court diversion.

Rourke said commission members and advocates "were caught completely by surprise with the suggestion that we should just repeal the fund entirely."

When the fund was created in 2000, the law required that a portion of the gross profits from liquor sales in a given year - but "not more than 5 percent" - be deposited into a special fund for "alcohol education and abuse prevention and treatment programs."

It was only fully funded at 5 percent once, in 2003.

The law's current language states the funds shall be used for "alcohol and other drug prevention, treatment, and recovery services." During the last budget process, lawmakers amended the law to specify that 1.7 percent of the previous year's gross liquor profits would go to the fund.

Gov. Chris Sununu proposed doubling that to 3.4 percent in this year's budget.

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, the veteran chairman of the House Finance Committee, authored the amendment to repeal the law. He said "absolutely nothing" would change if it passes.

Kurk said the practice for more than a decade has been for budget writers to suspend the alcohol fund law and then appropriate money for substance abuse programs out of general and federal funds. "We appropriate the amount of money we think the problem needs and, frankly, that we can afford as part of the budget," he said.

Advocates see it differently.

Kate Frey is vice president of advocacy at New Futures, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on health policy issues. Repealing the alcohol fund would make a "huge statement," and jeopardize the progress the state has been making, she said.

"New Hampshire was very forward-thinking back in 2000 when they said we are a state that generates a tremendous amount of revenue from the sale of alcohol, so we have to be prepared for the unintended consequences," she said.

Dedicating a portion of that revenue toward prevention, treatment and recovery, Frey said, "was really a responsible way to deal with this issue - a unique, innovative, New Hampshire way."

And she said while some lawmakers mistakenly believe the alcohol fund is only for programs related to alcohol abuse, the money has always supported programs that deal with addiction to drugs and alcohol alike.

Rourke said the alcohol fund law was a commitment to use some of the profits the state generates by selling alcohol toward "mitigating the damage" it causes.

"The Legislature has had 20 years to be able to demonstrate that they could live up to that commitment and they haven't done it," he said. "And now they're just deciding to blow it up, because they don't think that that commitment is important.

"That's the message that I think a lot of people are hearing and it's very, very concerning."

Kurk disagrees. "If you judge commitment by spending, then our commitment ... will be much stronger in the future than it has been in the past," he said.

Kurk said appropriations for substance abuse programs have gone up every biennium. "So the concern that has been expressed, I think, is belied by the actual appropriation," he said. "We're putting our money where our mouth is."

But the nature of the state's substance abuse problems have changed since the alcohol fund was created, he said. "So there's no longer the direct connection ... between the alcohol fund and the alcohol and drug abuse problems that we're now facing."

Kurk noted lawmakers allocated $5.9 million for the governor's commission to distribute in fiscal year 2017, a huge increase from the $1 million budgeted in the previous fiscal year; that increase was triggered by the state's opioid epidemic.

The 2018-19 budget recommendation includes $6 million in FY18 and $6.1 million in FY19, he said.

There's also a big increase in the Department of Health and Human Services budget for the Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services, Kurk said, from $33.8 million in the last biennium to $54.8 million proposed for 2018-19.

Rourke said even level-funding the governor's commission leaves many needs unmet in the midst of a drug crisis. But he said, "The bigger concern is that the alcohol fund was designed so that we could have a permanent, stable funding source to provide to the services that are needed in the community."

The House Finance Committee is set to vote on the budget Monday and Tuesday; it then goes to the full House for a vote early next month.

Advocates are planning a rally on April 6th. And Rourke said advocates are contacting House and Senate lawmakers to protest the change.

"It's unfortunate that we have to revisit the basic tenets of the alcohol fund, when really what we need to be talking about is how we can best help the citizens of New Hampshire by taking advantage of this incredibly unique resource at our disposal," he said.

The issue also will be discussed at Friday's meeting of the Governor's Commission, which Sununu is set to attend, Rourke said.

Sununu's spokesman, David Abrams, said in an email that the governor's proposal to double the alcohol fund "is not only necessary - it's the right thing to do."

"Our state's opiate crisis demands that we work together to commit critical dollars to support our regional drug interdiction efforts and to bolster our prevention, treatment and recovery programs," Abrams said. "Governor Sununu will continue to be outspoken in his support and will continue to fight for the doubling of New Hampshire's Alcohol Fund."

According to data from the state Bureau of Emergency Medical Services, emergency responders handled 5,517 cases of drug-related medical emergencies, mostly overdoses, in 2016. They also treated 4,351 individuals for alcohol-related emergencies.

New Futures' Frey said if the alcohol fund had been fully funded at 5 percent of profits from the start, that would have provided $97 million for prevention, treatment and recovery services instead of the $37.3 million the state allocated to the fund over the years.

"And many people wonder: if we had the funding to begin with, would our state be in the throes of an opioid epidemic?" she said.

swickham@unionleader.com