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House ‘insurance policy’ could keep 988 suicide hotline funding at full $40M

One committee’s actions could be rendered null and void by the larger House’s budget amendment.

Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn) during Wyoming’s 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

by Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

The House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to strip 75% of proposed funding from the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline’s trust fund. That left $10 million.  

However, late Monday night, representatives on the House floor voted for a budget amendment that would backfill whatever gets removed from House Bill 186 – 988 hotline-appropriation.

“So, in [HB 186], if all $40 million of that gets stripped out, $40 million stays in effect here,” amendment sponsor Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn) said. “If $20 million gets stripped out of that, $20 million goes into effect here.”

That means as of Tuesday afternoon, the trust fund for Wyoming’s 988 Lifeline is still set to receive the full $40 million, which in theory would sustain the service in perpetuity amid Wyoming’s budgetary booms and busts.

Funding breakdown

Wyoming’s hotline transitioned to the round-the-clock 988 Lifeline in 2022. And last year, data showed dramatic growth in its use, including anecdotes of it saving people’s lives while very rarely involving police or EMS. 

More data needs to be collected from the call centers, according to Andi Summerville with the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, but early federal and state data shows Wyoming’s suicide rate has decreased enough to no longer lead the nation. 

While no one questioned the hotline’s usefulness, lawmakers in the House Appropriations Committee wondered Tuesday morning if they needed to spend the full $40 million on 988 this year, noting constraints of a budget that needs to be balanced.

The hotline currently costs about a million dollars per year, according to HB 186 sponsor Rep. Jon Conrad (R-Mountain View). 

Earning about $1.3-1.5 million a year in interest from that $40 million, Conrad estimated, would fund current operations, any necessary expansions amid the lifeline’s growth and a new text messaging function.

“So I think the money is right on,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t come to you today asking for $46 million.”

Some heavy hitters of Wyoming industry, including the Associated General Contractors of Wyoming and the Wyoming Mining Association, backed that level of funding. 

“With over 26,000 employees that we have between mining and our [mining associates] … we find that we have not been immune to this; not within our members and not within their families,” said Pat Joyce, the mining association’s assistant director.

Beyond that, the $40 million investment was supported by the Wyoming Counseling Association, conservative advocacy group Freedom Path 307 and former lawmaker Pat Sweeney from Casper.

The Legislature’s decision not to pass a similar funding measure last year was a “great disappointment,” according to Sweeney, who advocated for spending the full $40 million now instead of putting more into savings. 

“It was said last year on the floor the churches would take care of this,” he said. “The churches won’t take care of this — it’s not possible or probable.”

“To date, we have received zero dollars in private donations.” STEFAN JOHANSSON, WYOMING DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) also questioned why, if industry and civic organizations were so concerned about their employees and neighbors, they didn’t step up and offer matching dollars to boost 988’s trust fund. 

Last year, lawmakers set up an unfunded trust fund that private organizations could support. But so far, no one has stepped up to the plate, according to the Wyoming Department of Health’s top official.

“To date, we have received zero dollars in private donations, and I think it’s largely due to not having the tax benefit of a donation there, as well as  — we’ll own this — potentially awareness, promotion,” Director Stefan Johansson said Tuesday.

Joyce with the Wyoming Mining Association responded, saying her association has discussed helping disperse educational materials and filling other needs if the state decided to fund 988 in perpetuity. She also reminded committee members that her association is “one of the larger contributors to your budget.”

Ultimately, Rep. Dave Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) brought an amendment to shave the trust fund infusion down to $10 million, which was adopted. The now much cheaper HB 186 passed unanimously out of the committee.

Insurance policy

Late Monday night, past many Wyomingites’ bedtimes, Rep. Western walked to a microphone on the House floor in support of House Budget Amendment 33. Many were probably wondering why he brought it, he said. 

“Ultimately, it’s because this topic is way too important to not have an insurance policy,” he said. “The consequences are way too severe and the ramifications are way too serious if we don’t exhaust every single avenue possible to ensure that we have options to solve this.”

That amendment states that the state auditor shall transfer $40 million “from the general fund to the 988 system trust fund.” 

“This appropriation shall be reduced by one dollar ($1.00) for every one dollar ($1.00) up to forty million dollars ($40,000,000.00) appropriated to the 988 system trust fund account in 2024 House Bill 0186, as enacted into law,” it states. 

Rep. Tony Locke (R-Casper) on the House floor during the 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

There wasn’t unanimous consent. Rep. Tony Locke (R-Casper), for example, said he’d like to fund it on a biennial basis to “keep this one a little bit closer to the body.”

“I honestly believe with all my heart that some of these projects need to be much more closely managed by us as a body, and this is a perfect example of that,” he said, adding that it’s to “make sure this project’s going in the direction that we think we want it to go.”

Still, in response to Locke, Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) said the Legislature would have oversight of any money that’s generated from that $40 million fund. 

“Those funds still have to be appropriated through the legislative process,” he said. “So, the request would show up in the Department of Health’s budget, we’d have to approve it based on what the agency feels the demand is for the 988 hotline.”

Ultimately, that budget amendment passed the House 37-25. 

The third reading of the House budget bill is scheduled for Wednesday. 

Extra support

Even if all else fails, House Bill 144 – Suicide awareness and prevention license plate advanced Tuesday out of the House Appropriations Committee. 

That would allow people to voluntarily buy license plates with a potentially cool, retro design — yet to be determined — with proceeds of the $100 plates going to 988’s trust fund. 

The idea came to Jerimiah Rieman — executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association — when he was in Colorado, he told lawmakers. He saw new black and white license plates all over the place, he said. Digging into it, he found out people were largely buying them because they looked cool, not even realizing funds were going to disability support programs.

“The Colorado Legislature in 2022 passed a bill that authorized their department of transportation to give out four historic license plates,” he said, including what is now the state’s most popular special subscription plate: the black and white one. 

“It’s sort of a vanity approach,” he said. “They want to have that black and white go along with their particular vehicle, and that’s driven sales through the roof.”

Similarly, Wyoming offers specialty Wildlife Conservation Fund plates to help bolster that fund. Those have raised nearly $735,000 via plates, fees and donations in the program, Rieman said. 

The novel idea is something Summerville with the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers supported, adding that her organization could help with community-wide marketing about the plate. 

Lindsay Simineo with the Wyoming Counseling Association agreed.

“We’re very grateful that we are being supported by such an innovative idea,” she said. “We have no qualms with what the license plate looks like at all.”

That bill passed out of committee unanimously. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.