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

Advocates disappointed in governor's budget allocations for drug and alcohol abuse programs

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2003

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.

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.

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

Last year's 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.

The administration plans to put 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 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 likely will 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."

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