After nearly three months of holding back funds for a text-based suicide prevention program, the legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted to release the funds Wednesday.
But not without another battle.
Returning to the agenda was the measure to fund HOPELINE at $110,000 per year, which was included in the state budget, approved in July. Republicans on JFC argued the funding should not be released until the Task Force on Suicide Prevention had put out its report, which happened last week and was controversial because it did not include measures designed specifically to prevent suicide using firearms.
At the previous JFC meeting, Democrats had pushed back stressing the urgency of the issue and the potentially dire consequences of holding up the funds.
HOPELINE is a project of the Kaukauna-based Center for Suicide Awareness. In a Sept. 18 letter, the center’s outreach coordinator, Greg Pekarske-Siers, wrote to Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), expressing confusion that the funding that was approved in the budget was being held up to wait until the task force came out with its recommendations.
“Can you explain what the Taskforce has to do with the dispensing of funds to us which has already been approved,” he wrote. He added that the center’s executive director Barb Bigalke “provided all the information to all the legislators expressing the need for state funding to continue with our work in saving lives, but few took notice.”
Wednesday at JFC, Taylor read from the letter and expressed her alarm that the committee held back on releasing this funding. “We are really in a mental health crisis in our state,” Taylor said. “It seems like it’s obstacle after obstacle, and in the meantime, how many people have committed suicide? Why isn’t this being treated by the majority like we are in a crisis?”
JFC co-chair Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) shot back: “I think your rhetoric…and your lack of willingness to do your job when it comes to oversight is getting a little tiresome.” He blasted the Democratic members saying that there was no type of service “that had not been rendered because of this committee’s due diligence.”
Replied Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point), “I get the due diligence, but this is just holding things up for a couple of months. They could have gotten started on this [work] already.”
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the funding will be used for software, data collection and analysis and working with volunteers to operate the service.
The Examiner has been covering the issue of suicides in Wisconsin in a series of articles, including a conversation with a legislator who also serves as the medical examiner in St. Croix County, as well as suicides among first responders, including law enforcement personnel. If you or someone you care about needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Wisconsin HOPELINE at 741741