It’s only the third day of the 2017 legislative session, but already the dialogue in Juneau has been dominated by the state’s budget problem — a $3 billion shortfall, according to Gov. Bill Walker.


Lawmakers and the governor may not agree on how to fix the state’s finances, but there is one issue they say they’re coming together on this year — figuring out how to curb the growing trend of heroin and prescription drug abuse in Alaska.


According to the Department of Health and Social Services, opioid deaths in Alaska are twice the national rate.


“The unfolding tragedy of Alaska’s heroin epidemic is ruining the lives of many Alaskans,” Gov. Bill Walker said in his State of the State address Wednesday. “It’s breaking families apart, it’s driving up crime.”


Walker released a 5-part plan for solving the problem, based on a report released by the Opioid Policy Task Force Thursday.


“I want to applaud the governor for looking at that,” said House Minority Whip Mike Chenault.


Members on both sides of the House and Senate say dealing with drug abuse is a top priority this session.


“Obviously the budget is kind of first on our mind right now, and resolving that, but this is an epidemic statewide. And I’m not sure everyone knows that,” said Senate Rules Chairman Kevin Meyer, who released a bill to criminalize the opioid known as “pink” at a state level.


“I don’t think we can talk about the budget without talking about substance abuse in Alaska,” said Rep. Geran Tarr. “It’s a huge cost driver in all of our state departments — public safety, corrections, department of health and social services.” adding that the issue costs the state $1.2 billion annually, according to a 2012 report by The McDowell Group.


Tarr is a member of the Women in Government’s National Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders. The group released a “tool kit” Thursday with information on policies states across the nation have implemented to try to combat opioid addiction.


“Some of it is looking at insurance policy, making sure people have better access to treatment through their insurance coverage, for example,” Tarr said. “Some of it is looking into some of the medical interventions.”


In a state divided by its budget woes, substance abuse is a common enemy.


“It’s not just MatSu, it’s not just the Kenai, it’s not just Anchorage,” said Chenault. “It’s everywhere in Alaska.”


Walker has not yet put forth any legislation related to his plan. A spokesperson for this office, Katie Marquette, says the governor does plan to do so this session.


KTVA 11’s Liz Raines can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.


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