I had high hopes when a legislative committee urged the state to set up a $46 million trust fund intended to generate interest and pay for Wyoming’s suicide and crisis hotlines forever.
Let that word sink in, because it would guarantee that 24/7 assistance will never go away. It means it will always be available in a state that has the country’s highest suicide rate per capita. In fact, Wyoming’s is more than twice the national average.
As detailed in the Joint Interim Revenue Committee’s House Bill 65 – 988 suicide prevention, Wyoming’s two call centers wouldn’t have to go to the state every two years to ask for money, get turned down and wonder how they’ll keep the lights on. It’s called stable revenue, an answer to a prayer.
The bill’s genesis coincided with the rollout of the new 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline that connects people to professional help and resources through simply dialing those three digits. The number of calls in Wyoming has been climbing since July, when 988 went live.
While the House and Senate both approved the bill, legislative maneuvering ultimately torpedoed the original intent and purpose. It’s barely recognizable.
First, the House changed the bill from a trust fund to a simple account.
Next, in a move that caught most supporters by surprise, the chamber zeroed out the appropriation and didn’t put in a dime, because lawmakers said they want people to be able to donate to the cause. How thoughtful of them — and what a massive savings for Wyoming’s government coffers these political chickens can brag about!
The House added a provision that encourages the Department of Health to make “reasonable efforts” to secure donations from charitable foundations and other sources. It’s not a task state agencies are usually assigned, but if WDH is given enough hours to work on it, the effort will hopefully bear some fruit.
The House passed HB 65 by a 38-23 vote, sending it to the Senate. Advocates hoped that chamber could restore at least some of the money.
Not only was that a pipedream, the Senate actually eroded the measure further by deciding the account will expire at the end of 2028. It’s not only empty, the fund will disappear unless legislators see some unspecified bang for the state’s bucks.
I’m not suggesting private funds shouldn’t be used to sweeten the trust and allow it to do even more to reduce suicide. But the idea was to start with $46 million in state and federal funds, with interest allowing the hotlines to be funded in perpetuity.
Operations at Lifeline in Greybull and Central Wyoming Counseling Center in Casper, which both started offering services part-time in 2000, now split shifts so staff is always available. Thanks to $2.1 million in federal funds and $400,000 from the state, calls are no longer automatically switched to national centers that aren’t intimately knowledgable about Wyoming or what suicide prevention resources are locally available.
House Bill 65 was the best opportunity in the foreseeable future for Wyoming to create a trust fund of this magnitude for a mental health emergency. The state just put $1.4 billion in savings. Wyoming is still raking in mineral severance tax revenues, thanks to an unexpected boom in fossil fuels. Wyoming also has millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act that should be going to health-care-related programs.
The problem is, that federal ARPA money will go away in two years. No one knows how long the energy industry will enjoy its profitable growth spurt, but economic experts don’t expect those current highs to stick around past a few more years.
Wyoming is a rich state, with the ability to move money around to address a lot of problems. Even Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), chair of the far-right Wyoming Freedom Caucus, acknowledged this when he told colleagues he opposed HB 65.
“I don’t think we need [the trust fund],” Bear said. “We’ve got reserve accounts. … We also have the ‘rainy day fund,’ all these different funds, which create great revenue streams. We can put the $40 million in any of those.”
But most of the rainy day account is already committed to other expenditures, including schools, since the Legislature can’t get out of its own way long enough to craft a stable education funding source. There’s no indication lawmakers plan to make those “giant revenue streams” available for suicide prevention — if they did, they wouldn’t have gutted HB 65.
Full disclosure: I serve on Lifeline’s advisory board, which means I spend an hour a month on a Zoom call, mostly to cheer on the efforts of professionals who know how to help people in crisis survive. But I’m not writing this column as a representative of the board, which frankly is much more diplomatic than me.
Back to the shell of a trust fund that’s now due to sunset in five years: While I’m glad there’s at least a suicide prevention account that can potentially grow, I have virtually no faith that the Legislature will help build it. This is the same bunch that let over $1.4 billion in federal funds go to other states in the past decade by refusing to expand Medicaid.
This pales in comparison to that monumental blunder, but I’m still seething every time I think of the Legislature’s 2015 decision to give the University of Wyoming $8 million to improve its “athletic competitiveness.” The next year, scrambling to balance its budget and help pay for that gift to the sports department, lawmakers cut $2.1 million from the suicide prevention program.
Under HB 65, the Legislature plans to put in enough to operate the two crisis lines for another year, about $700,000, and then it will see how things go. There’s no guarantee the state will provide any money after the next fiscal year. Supporters will have to scrape together what they can in future bienniums.
Also, if lawmakers are choosing to cut state funds for suicide prevention and allow people and foundations to make donations instead, why don’t they apply that logic across the board?
House Bill 69 – Coal-fired facility closures litigation funding-amendments gives Gov. Mark Gordon $1.2 million to sue states that have the audacity not to buy and burn Wyoming coal.
Why should any state funds be spent on this endeavor? Wouldn’t it make everyone feel better if we gave Wyomingites the chance to finance this themselves? You never know when we’re going to run out of government funds.
But it appears the Legislature is selective about which problems it wants to throw state money at.
Before the Senate voted 19-12 to approve the bill, many members questioned whether suicide and crisis hotlines are effective.
A Columbia University study found that they are. Researchers interviewed about 3,000 callers from a representative sample of crisis centers, finding “significant reductions in callers’ self-reported crisis and suicide states by the end of the call.”
Columbia said it busted a common myth that truly suicidal people weren’t really calling the hotlines. The study found that 8% of callers were actually in the middle of an attempt and 58% had attempted suicide before.
I also noticed that every House member who voted against HB 65 also voted for HB 152 – Life is a human right act, which bans almost all abortions in Wyoming.
How can anyone who claims to be “pro-life” vehemently defend the government’s right to control a woman’s reproductive life — even mandating they must deliver a baby conceived by incest or rape — but not think government has a moral obligation to invest in ways to save the lives of people at risk of killing themselves? Isn’t that “pro-life” too?