EDMOND — Legislators should consider increasing the tax on alcohol and beer to help pay for treatment costs and not send as many nonviolent offenders to prison, instead of simply making additional cuts in the next fiscal year, health and human services agency heads said Wednesday.
"We have to cut corrections, we have to cut public safety and fund preventive programs and treatment programs instead," Mental Health Commissioner Terri White said. "We can't take any more cuts."
Health Commissioner Terry Cline said his agency's funding has been slashed 15 percent in the past two years, which has forced cuts in services and employees.
"One or two years of cuts to that infrastructure could result in decades of loss in terms of well-being for constituents in our system." He said legislators should look at how the state's education and criminal justice systems are funded.
They made the comments after a fiscal policy expert told a conference the state could be facing a budget shortfall of nearly $800 million for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Lawmakers and the governor next year won't have as many one-time funds, such as federal stimulus money and savings, as they did this year to deal with a $1.2 billion shortfall, David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a policy think tank, told those attending an annual conference of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Projections show collections of existing sources of revenue will be about $1.1 billion short to balance the 2012 fiscal year budget, Blatt said. This fiscal year's budget is $6.7 billion.
Legislators will have available $100 million they stashed away after draining the state's Rainy Day Fund, and will have other cash on hand to bring the shortfall down to nearly $800 million, he said.
"Revenue growth is
Contacted later, state Treasurer Scott Meacham, Gov. Brad Henry's budget adviser, said he expects the state will have revenue growth of about 3 percent, or about $139 million. That means, along with some available cash, such as additional federal stimulus funds this year for the state's Medicaid program and common education that Blatt didn't include in his estimate, the budget hole would be closer to about $450 million.
"It will be another year of cuts," he said. "We're going to have a shortfall. The question is: How much growth are we going to get?"
White said it is cheaper to treat those with drug, alcohol and mental health issues than it is to incarcerate them. The average cost to maintain an inmate in prison is $48 a day, a figure that jumps to $175 a day if in a prison mental health unit — providing mental health services to someone in the community costs $25 a day, while providing substance abuse services in the community costs $15 a day.
Alcohol tax proposed
Howard Hendrick, director of the Department of Human Services, said the state should look at increasing the alcohol tax for the same reason voters were asked in 2004 to approve a tobacco tax increase — to help pay for treatment and medical costs associated with the use of the product.
"Alcohol not paying its cost of its use means that the money we are paying in taxes is going to cover part of the cost of some people to use alcohol," he said.
"We're not saying you can't drink, we're not going to prohibition — we're just asking you to pay your share of the cost," Hendrick said, who received applause. "We're just trying to defer people from behaving irresponsibly with alcohol."
White said several states are looking at raising taxes, especially on beer, and using that money for substance abuse treatment and prevention.
Hendrick said his agency has cut employees the past two years but demand for services is at record levels. His agency last month provided food stamps to 612,000 Oklahomans. It was the 30th month in a row that the number of recipients
White said the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Department, which had its funding cut by $25 million in the last 18 months, laid off 100 employees, closed a Norman substance abuse treatment center for adults and eliminated all of the state's 40 mental health beds for children at another Norman facility. It also closed a men's treatment center in Tahlequah.
About 70 percent of adults in Oklahoma are not able to get treatment for mental illness and 77 percent of adults are not able to get substance abuse treatment, she said. Forty percent of children who need help with mental health issues are unable to get treatment.
She said 82 percent of youth who need substance abuse treatment do not have access to it. As many as 900 Oklahomans are on a waiting list for residential substance abuse treatment.
"All of the beds in the state are full," she said.
Calls to the state's suicide hot line have increased from 1,200 in January-to-March 2009, to more than 1,800 for the same period this year.
"When we cut mental health and substance abuse services, ... we will see an increase of suicides in the state of Oklahoma, and it's not OK to me that we're going to lose more of our children and that we're going to lose more of our adults to suicide which is an absolutely preventable cause of death."
Cline said cuts this fiscal year have resulted in services being eliminated to more than 11,000 families. Employees have been cut by nearly 300 in the past two years.
For the first time in state history, the Health Department is not among the top 10 agencies receiving state appropriations, with $63.7 million this fiscal year, he said. Its reduction in funding comes as the state ranks near the bottom on most health categories and in the infant mortality rate. Oklahoma is headed to having the highest obesity rate in the country by 2013, Cline said.