With about $59 million less to spend than expected, it’s natural that the House Finance Committee would trim a few items from Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget proposal. Yet, the cuts they’re making are concerning advocates who championed Sununu for including them in the first place.
On Wednesday, Republican budget writers in the House killed Sununu’s plan to spend $18 million over the biennium to expand full-day kindergarten programs. They also cut a $5 million college scholarship program.
“This is a short-sighted decision by a subcommittee of the Finance Committee,” said Mark Shriver, president of Save the Children Action Network, in a statement. “When he proposed his budget last month, Governor Sununu showed that he recognizes the importance of a full-day of kindergarten and understands the long-term economic benefits quality early learning programs can have for New Hampshire. The Republican majority in the House should stand with Governor Sununu and vote to put the full-day kindergarten funding request back into the budget.”
Full-day kindergarten isn’t the only proposal on the chopping block. The Alcohol Abuse Prevention and Treatment Fund was also cut this week.
The Alcohol Fund was created in 2000 by a bipartisan majority in the Legislature to be a funding mechanism that takes 5 percent of the gross profits from the sale of alcohol to support education, prevention, treatment, and recovery programs for alcohol and drugs. The funds would be allocated to the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment to pay contracts for service providers in communities.
The fund has only been fully financed one time since its inception, which was in the 2003-2004 biennium. In his budget speech, Sununu proposed increasing the funds to 3.4 percent, double the 1.7 percent rate the previous budget had set.
“First, I propose we double the Alcohol Fund, increasing these important resources by more than $3 million and creating incentives to ensure that those funds are truly spent,” he said in his Thursday speech.
In several biennium budgets, the governor or Legislature would usually suspend the formula and allocate monies from the general fund to go to substance abuse prevention, treatment, and recovery.
Since there’s $59 million less in tax revenue coming in than expected when Sununu wrote his budget, Alcohol Fund advocates suspected that lawmakers would suspend the formula again. However, a more dramatic approach was taken by the House Finance Committee on Tuesday.
An amendment introduced by Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, was added to the budget in House Bill 2 that would repeal the Alcohol Fund for good and it passed in a 6-4 vote on party lines.
“They’re trying to get to a number and they’re trying to come up with different avenues to do that, and some are very creative,” said Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy for New Futures, a nonprofit advocacy group that’s been one of the biggest proponents of the Alcohol Fund.
“New Futures has always been in favor of restoring the Alcohol Fund and using it as intended by the original statute to address problems for the substance abuse crisis,” she told NH Journal. “The fact that they are repealing the Alcohol Fund in its entirety is very unsettling.”
Advocates and some lawmakers like the fund because it’s non-lapsing and flexible, which is a creative and innovative solution to curb the opioid epidemic. The funds are non-restrictive, unlike some federal funds from grants that can’t be used to build brick-and-mortar recovery centers, for example.
New Hampshire is expected to receive $6 million, less than the $10 million previously anticipated by state officials, from the 21st Century Cures Act, bipartisan legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by former President Barack Obama in December, which gave $6.3 billion in funding to states hit hardest by the opioid crisis.
When Kurk introduced the amendment, advocates were also concerned because the language in the amendment appeared that he also repealed the authority of the Governor’s Commission to disperse the funds. The issue was cleared up on Wednesday, when that language was changed, giving the authority back to the Governor’s Commission to allocate funds, but still repealing the Alcohol Fund. The measure passed on a 5-4 vote on party lines, with Kurk absent.
Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, who sits on the House Finance Committee, said the Governor’s Commission would receive $5.9 million in 2018 and $6.2 million in 2019 for alcohol and drug abuse education, prevention, treatment, and recovery, slightly less than what was allocated in the current biennium. If the elimination of the Alcohol Fund is passed, it would be up to the Legislature in each budget to allocate whatever they thought was an appropriate amount.
“Without the stability of that fund, it’s concerning to providers that are thinking about expanding their services here,” Rosenwald told NH Journal. “The flat funding for the next two years doesn’t expand access to treatment or recovery very much.”
When introducing the amendment in New Hampshire, Kurk said it was inappropriate for alcohol funds to go to the opioid crisis and that the issue the fund was originally created to solve, alcohol abuse, isn’t the main issue anymore — it’s opioids.
Advocates were quick to point out that the statute language when it was first written allowed funds to be used for alcohol and drug abuse programs. They also dismissed the idea that New Hampshire doesn’t have an alcohol problem anymore. According to a 2014 report, the Granite State’s per capita alcohol consumption is nearly twice the national average.
“I was very surprised at the elimination of the [Alcohol] Fund and I was surprised that they would suggest that somehow there is a disconnect between alcohol and our current opioid epidemic,” said Tym Rourke, chair of the Governor’s Commission, in an interview with NH Journal.
“The suggestion that New Hampshire only has an opioid problem is just false and somewhat disappointing that the Legislature would be picking one group of individuals who are suffering over another,” he added.
Previously, the Senate Finance Committee recommended passage of Senate Bill 196, which would put the Alcohol Fund at the 3.4 percent rate originally proposed by Sununu. The bill was laid on the table so lawmakers could go through the budget process before deciding on the fate of that bill.
Once the House Finance Committee signs off on the budget, it goes to the full House for a vote. The Senate will then get their turn to go line-by-line in the budget. At this point, Senate budget writers could have more money to play with since revenue estimates change throughout the year, so in theory, reinstating the Alcohol Fund and funding full-day kindergarten could see a new life. Advocates for those issues are hopeful the Senate would return them to the budget for Sununu to sign.