Jim Kenyon: New Liquor Store May Boost ‘Alcohol Fund’

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

I’m not thrilled about the “bigger and better” state liquor store planned for West Lebanon’s 12A strip, but there is one upside, at least in theory: It will generate more money to help New Hampshire residents struggling with substance abuse.

For going on 20 years, state legislators have promised to put a chunk — as much as $10 million or so a year — of New Hampshire’s sizable liquor profits into a so-called Alcohol Fund.

Never heard of it?

Me, neither. I thought an alcohol fund was something Dartmouth students used to bankroll their frat parties.

New Hampshire has long made a killing by selling booze. In 2016, its 79 liquor and wine outlets made $536 million in total sales for a profit of more than $200 million.

In 1999, state Sen. Ned Gordon, who is now a District Court judge, suggested a small percentage of the liquor profits go toward helping prevent and treat abuse of the very products that the state was so actively peddling.

A Faustian bargain.

Clifton Below, a Lebanon Democrat who was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee at the time, supported Gordon’s proposal as a much-needed investment in treatment programs.

The idea was to place 5 percent of liquor store profits in the Alcohol Fund. Even after it was agreed to phase in the 5 percent requirement, it still took a couple of years for it to pass.

But what state lawmakers can do, they also can undo.

The online news site Manchester Ink Link has reported that only in 2003 — the Alcohol Fund’s initial year — did the Legislature put aside the full amount it had promised.

Most years, the fund has received only a portion of what it was supposed to get. In 2012 and 2013, for instance, it was due a total of $15 million for the two years. Instead it received $3.2 million.

Year after year, lawmakers have diverted money from the Alcohol Fund to the state’s general fund.

“The (state) budget is always nickeled and dimed, so it’s always a stretch to make it work,” said Below, who left the Legislature in 2004 and now serves on the Lebanon City Council.

With lawmakers struggling to find ways to pay the state’s bills, the Alcohol Fund was easy pickings, Below said.

“It was so shortsighted,” he said, adding that New Hampshire is still fighting the notion in some political circles that “substance addiction is due to someone’s own shortcomings.”

Actually, the state has even more reason to stop diverting funds now that the money can be used to cover all forms of substance abuse prevention and treatment.

New Hampshire ranks No. 2 in the country — behind West Virginia — in opioid-related per-capita deaths, with nearly 500 annually.

In 2018 and 2019, the fund is due to receive $9.5 million — about half of what it would get if fully funded.

“It’s better than what they were doing, but it’s still not at 5 percent,” said Kate Frey, a lobbyist for New Futures, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Concord that focuses on health and wellness issues. “Ideally, we’d be able to offer substance abuse treatment to anyone in New Hampshire who asks, but we’re not even close to it.”

A 2017 New Futures report pointed out that while opioid abuse is on the rise, alcohol abuse remains a more significant problem. More than 110,000 New Hampshire working adults are struggling with alcohol dependence, the report showed.

Fortunately, the vast majority of people who consume alcohol don’t develop a drinking problem. But, like it or not, the state has a responsibility to help those who do.

Particularly when it keeps building new liquor stores, such as the one on the drawing board in West Lebanon. On Monday, the Lebanon Planning Board approved construction of the 19,000-square-foot store and warehouse in the parking lot next to the Weathervane Seafood Restaurant.

A private developer will build the store, estimated to cost roughly $2 million, and lease the space to the state.

It will replace the liquor store in the nearby Powerhouse Plaza, which has been one of the state’s biggest cash cows. In 2016, the store made $14.2 million in sales — 10th highest in the state. (Thank you very much, thirsty Vermonters.)

Apparently, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission believes a new store in West Lebanon will do even better. Why else would it want a mega-store that nearly matches the size of those at the Hooksett tolls on Interstate 93?

Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee will hold a hearing today on a bill sponsored by Rep. Sharon Nordgren, a Hanover Democrat. The bill would restore the Alcohol Fund to the full 5 percent of liquor store profits. (It’s currently at 3.4 percent.)

The bill also would repeal a measure approved last year that allows the state to raid the Alcohol Fund to help pay for locking up juveniles at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester.

“We shouldn’t be using the Alcohol Fund as a piggy bank,” Nordgren told me.

With all the money the state rakes in from selling liquor, I see no reason why lawmakers shouldn’t go along with Nordgren’s proposal.

At least, in theory.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.