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Oklahoma lawmakers should boost alcohol taxes, agency heads say

After hearing the state could face a budget shortfall of nearly $800 million in the next fiscal year, department heads make their case before a conference of children advocates.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Modified: October 14, 2010 at 12:41 pm •  Published: October 14, 2010

"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 increased.

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.

Mental illness

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.