Senate approves $5M more to fight drug crisis, kills casino proposal

  • The outside of Dick’s Variety North, the No. 1 selling keno location in Massachusetts, is shown. The line marking the state border between Massachusetts and Seabrook is in the parking lot. A few feet away is a sign advertising keno. Dick’s Variety generated more than $3.2 million worth of keno sales in 2014. ALLIE MORRIS / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Thursday, March 24, 2016
Substance abuse treatment and gambling topped the Senate’s agenda Thursday, with the Republican-led chamber endorsing one and killing the other.

The Senate unanimously agreed to spend an additional $5.1 million to fight the opioid crisis. But the chamber rejected a bill to allow one casino in Salem, a plan that would have drawn an estimated $100 million in annual state revenue.

The big debate Thursday centered on drug abuse.

Senate Democrats and Republicans sparred over how much to spend to tackle the issue, and where the money should come from. Ultimately, all 24 members endorsed the bill, which will now move to the Republican-controlled House.

The legislation lets the Department of Health and Human Services allocate $4.5 million to either sober housing or the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery. It also funds a new drug prosecutor in the attorney general’s office and creates a $500,000 grant program to fund peer-to-peer recovery services, which help people maintain their sobriety.

The programs would be funded with money that other state agencies don’t use this budget cycle. Lawmakers suggested charter schools, and HHS may have unspent money this year.

“This is quite frankly the most fiscally responsible way to fund these necessary programs,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican.

Democrats disagreed and pushed to fund the programs with state revenues that are running roughly $60 million above projections. Senate Democrats also unsuccessfully tried to increase the bill’s spending by giving $5 million to the Governor’s Commission and $2 million to sober housing. Republicans defeated the measure.

This bill is one of several that lawmakers are considering this year to tackle the state’s growing drug problem, which claimed more than 400 lives last year.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan supports further funding for substance abuse, and has already signed several drug bills into law this year. They require physicians use the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, standardize the insurance process for substance abuse coverage, and increase penalties for dealing fentanyl, a powerful painkiller responsible for a majority of the overdose deaths last year.

Other bills are still moving through the legislative process, and have yet to reach Hassan’s desk. They would spend nearly $3 million on a statewide drug court program, fund law enforcement efforts to crack down on drug dealers, legalize needle exchange programs and reduce prior authorization requirements for some drug treatment services.

Gambling

The Senate voted 13-11 to kill a casino bill, taking expanded gambling off the table for the rest of the year.

The Legislature has considered casino bills on a near-annual basis recently. While the House has never approved an expanded gambling proposal, they have traditionally found support in the Senate. But this year’s proposal drew little lobbying or fanfare. On the floor Thursday, longtime gambling proponent Sen. Lou D’Allesandro called on “divine intervention” to help its passage.

“I’m not going to do this too many more times,” said the Manchester Democrat, and the bill’s sponsor. “This is a labor I have put my heart and soul into for a long time.”

The bill, that would have have allowed one casino at Rockingham Park in Salem, failed after little debate.

Supporters say a casino will draw new state revenue without raising taxes. But opponents argue casinos provide unstable revenue and lead to negative social costs including gambling addiction. The Legislature killed a two-casino proposal last year.

The Senate will still consider a bill that would allow keno in bars and restaurants. The House already approved letting the electronic lottery game into New Hampshire. Hassan, who is winding down her last term in office, has voiced support for keno in the past.



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




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