Alcohol tax boosts programs, but not as much as critics want

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Sporting a ''dime-a-drink'' button, Matt Felix was among a handful of activists who sat through meeting after meeting of the Legislature for two years, pushing a boost in the state's alcohol tax.

Felix, who heads the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Juneau, hoped the money would eliminate waiting lists for treatment and pay for a comprehensive statewide treatment and prevention system.

He and other supporters of the tax increase were disappointed this year to see little of what they had hoped for in Gov. Frank Murkowski's budget.

''We got a little money,'' Felix says.

The budget would increase treatment funds for adolescents in rural Alaska and for parents whose drinking puts them at risk of having their children taken from them.

But mostly, it lets drinkers pay more for existing drug and alcohol programs, while shifting state general fund revenues elsewhere.

And the administration's spending plan requires a larger local contribution from agencies that receive state grants to treat alcohol and drug abuse. It also cuts an inmate treatment program.

''It's sort of like giving it with one hand and taking it back with the other,'' Felix said. ''I don't think the intent of the language attached to the (tax) bill was met.''

Health and Social Services Commissioner Joel Gilbertson said budget-writers put as much as they could into alcohol abuse programs during a year when Murkowski is trying to cut state spending. And when dramatic increases in Medicaid costs are stretching other parts of the budget.

''We had to make a decision on first and foremost protecting the programs that were currently existing,'' Gilbertson said.

Last year's tax bill boosted Alaska's tax on alcohol from about 3 cents a drink to about 10 cents a drink.

The bill called for half the tax to go into a new alcohol and drug abuse fund. And it said the Legislature could use that fund to maintain programs that prevent and treat alcohol and other substance abuse. But it did not require that.

About $15 million a year goes into the fund. Because not all the money was spent in the current fiscal year, the fund is expected to contain about $21.3 million for the 2004 fiscal year.

The administration plans to put 30 percent of that -- about $6.3 million -- into beefing up treatment.

Of that figure, $2.5 million would be spent on capital projects: expanding and renovating a Fairbanks detox center; providing transitional housing for people coming out of treatment; and expanding facilities for women with children.

The administration also wants to add $3.5 million to help rural adolescents and parents at risk of losing their children. Gilbertson said that may be matched with federal Medicaid funds to provide up to $10 million worth of treatment.

The administration has also earmarked an extra $225,000 for therapeutic courts and $74,000 to evaluate how well those courts are working.

Advocates for alcohol prevention and treatment are frustrated that the department is trying to save $1.6 million on alcohol grants by making treatment centers come up with a 25 percent match, instead of the 10 percent match required now.

Some agencies say they can't collect more from their clients to come up with a larger match, so they will likely lose funds and have to cut jobs.

Marla Lippard, clinical director at Gastineau Human Services in Juneau, said that program serves 300-400 indigent and low-income clients a year and its waiting list hovers around 70 people.

''We can't do it on any less,'' Lippard told a legislative committee. ''The demand far exceeds the capacity to provide treatment.''

But Gilbertson said the administration's proposal at least gives local communities the option of trying to continue programs at existing levels by boosting local efforts at a time when state funding is decreasing.

''The governor's bill is an effort to keep the treatment grants on the street,'' Gilbertson said. ''The alternative would be elimination of a number of grants.''

Whether the bill making the change in the match requirement becomes a reality remains to be seen. That bill, and the overall budget, are have yet to receive approval from the Legislature.

Jeff Jessee of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority said he's disappointed, but not surprised, that the Murkowski administration turned down his group's recommendation that nearly all the alcohol tax money go to new efforts.

Among other things, the trust authority wanted the state to build a new crisis treatment center in Anchorage and put funds into evaluating how well treatment programs work.

Still, Jesse is grateful the administration is proposing some new spending.

''There's some very significant advances in what the governor's proposing,'' Jessee said. ''They accepted one of the major focus points that we proposed. That is treatment for families that have kids in DFYS custody and have major alcohol problems.''

''They could have done nothing,'' Jessee said.

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