Capital Beat: Substance abuse aid shorted by budget

Last modified: 7/14/2015 6:54:30 PM
If there’s one area this year where Republicans and Democrats agree, it’s the need to tackle the state’s substance abuse problem.

A record 325 people died in New Hampshire from drug overdoses last year. At the State House, it’s translated to an outpouring of former drug users, family members, and emergency responders sharing their personal stories of addiction in the name of change.

Lawmakers have responded. Senators passed a bill Thursday giving limited criminal immunity to people who report overdoses. Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a law last week expanding public access to the life-saving drug Narcan, an antidote to heroin overdoses.

But it is also a budget year. And when it comes to funding a solution to the state’s drug problem, lawmakers on both sides seem unable to put their money where their mouths are.

More than a decade ago, lawmakers decided that a portion of state liquor and wine sales should be dedicated to treating alcohol and drug addiction. They set up a formula, earmarking up to 5 percent of gross alcohol profits to the fund each year. Power over the money goes to a commission of New Hampshire officials and stakeholders that helps craft the state strategy for substance abuse.

If the state followed this formula, the upcoming budget would allocate over $17 million to the fund, according to officials.

Despite calls from both parties to fully finance the issue, no one is proposing the state give nearly that much money to the fund. In fact, the spending figures proposed by representatives, senators and Hassan fall in the $3 million to $10 million range.

So what’s up with the difference? It’s part of a longstanding legislative pattern of ignoring the formula. Since its inception, the fund – formally known as the Alcohol Abuse Prevention And Treatment Fund – was fully funded through the formula just one time, in the year following its creation.

But after that, lawmakers have continuously suspended the formula and instead given the alcohol fund a dollar figure of their own choosing.

It’s meant that the fund has consistently received less money than it would have gotten if the formula had been followed.

Despite the heightened rhetoric around substance abuse, this year isn’t much different.

Both Hassan and the House proposed to suspend the funding formula in their own budget plans. While Hassan proposed giving the fund $9.6 million over the biennium, the Republican-controlled House dropped that figure to $3.6 million.

Senators have taken a different approach. Their budget proposal brings the formula back to life. But it lowers the cap to 1.7 percent of the gross alcohol profits, from the existing 5 percent. That means the fund would get $6.7 million over the two-year budget.

“I would like it to be more,” said Sen. Jeannie Forrester, a Meredith Republican, defending the decision during debate on the budget last week. “But this is what we can afford.” Democratic senators challenged that notion, slamming Republicans for lowering the dollar figure. They proposed a budget amendment to “fully fund” the alcohol fund at the level Hassan put forward.

“We must do everything that we can do to take this crisis on,” said Sen. Andrew Hosmer, a Laconia Democrat.

But even Hassan’s $9.6 million – the highest amount proposed by any budget plan – is much less than the existing formula would provide.

That’s not to say that 5 percent of gross alcohol profits is the silver bullet to solve the state’s substance abuse problems.

But some advocates are scratching their heads. If New Hampshire created a law, why have lawmakers not honored the intent?

Officials look to the formula, and the fund, as a rubric to set state plans.

The Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery – that oversees the fund – has outlined how the state would spend the $17 million it would receive if the formula were honored.

The commission plans to designate money to treatment services, recovery support services, a public education campaign, and prevention services at middle and high schools, among other things. Lawmakers this year have often challenged one another to make transparent choices, beyond the numbers, about what programs they want to fund and what they want to cut. The governor’s commission will be making those types of adjustments to their budget proposal at a meeting in June, once members get a better sense of the funding they’ll be working with over the next two years. Odds are, they will be making some cuts.

Brink of a veto?

Democrats have made clear their displeasure with a budget proposal passed by Senate Republicans on Thursday. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn took that unhappiness a step further.

“We are on the brink of a veto,” he warned senators during debate over the $11.3 billion budget.

A budget veto would likely send senators and representatives back to the negotiating table. To overturn a veto it takes a two-thirds majority, one that Republicans don’t have in the House or the Senate.

Hassan’s spokesman, William Hinkle, walked back the veto threat, saying Hassan won’t make a decision about signing or vetoing the budget until representatives and senators negotiate a final proposal. That process will take place over the coming weeks.

The last time a governor vetoed the budget it was Craig Benson in 2003. The House upheld the veto. And lawmakers passed a continuing resolution – a temporary, short-term way to keep the government running – while they negotiated a new budget bill, eventually signed into law in September.

But signing or vetoing the budget aren’t the only two options available to Hassan. She could also let the spending plan become law without her signature.

Democratic Gov. John Lynch chose that option in 2011, when Republicans controlled majorities in the House and Senate and he said a veto wouldn’t result in changes he would support.

By law, Hassan has five business days, including Saturdays, to act once a bill hits her desk. Once that time period expires, and she doesn’t sign or veto the measure, it becomes law. The current state budget expires June 30.

But at this time in the process last budget cycle, a lot of the rhetoric was similar. Democrats and Republicans were divided over the spending plan, that passed the Republican-controlled Senate along party lines, just like this year. Now, it’s a budget that members of both parties praise.

Possible lawsuit?

Most of the new spending proposed in the budget stems from recently settled lawsuits settlements. Another legal case could be on the horizon.

Renewable energy groups have circulated a legal memo that casts doubt on the constitutionality of dedicated fund raids. The House budget proposed to wipe out the balance of the renewable energy fund, to the tune of $50 million. While the Senate plan restores much of that, it also begins siphoning money from the fund into an account to support homeland security operations.

Renewable energy groups have said the move constitutes a raid of the dedicated fund, that provides financial incentives to businesses and residents who install renewable technology.

“Leading bipartisan constitutional experts have been telling lawmakers for the past several years that raiding dedicated funds such as REF is unconstitutional,” said Kate Epsen, executive director of the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association, in a statement. “It is ripe for a challenge and that option is certainly on the table.”

That would not be good news for lawmakers, who in past years have drawn from several so-called dedicated funds to balance the budget. Lawmakers have pledged not to raid dedicated funds in the budget this year, but a legal decision could cement that pledge into certainty.

Raptor redemption

A group of New Hampshire fourth graders are flying high, after President Obama invited them to name a red-tailed hawk living on the White House grounds. It’s the same class of fourth graders from the Lincoln Akerman school who were behind an effort this year to name the red-tailed hawk official state raptor. The plan was infamously shot down by New Hampshire representatives, one of whom likened the bird to a mascot for Planned Parenthood.

According to news reports, the students settled on Lincoln after taking a classroom vote. You can follow the hawk on Twitter @LincolnTheHawk.



(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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