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House passes suicide lifeline bill with empty trust fund

CHEYENNE — State representatives compromised Wednesday before the suicide lifeline bill crossed over to the Senate without an original appropriation of $46 million. Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, brought forward an amendment on third reading to reinstate a trust fund for the program, but to leave it empty. This followed his first successful amendment on the House floor last Friday that stripped House Bill 65 of its long-term funding source.

“We’re not really doing anything out of the ordinary here, except creating a trust fund with no money established in it. And once that trust fund is established, then, if this body or the next Legislature decides that this program is good enough, we can establish some money back in there,” he told lawmakers. “But this is a good compromise.”

Although Brown was one of many representatives who expressed discomfort with reserving the $46 million recommended by the House Revenue Committee, he said it didn’t stop his negotiations with Chairman Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper. The bill was laid back two days to find a middle ground, and Brown said he could live with adding the trust fund back in without funds.

He said it would show the state that they value the 988 suicide lifeline and plan to continue to fund it.

Creating the trust fund also gives community partners the opportunity to donate funds to the lifeline, or for the state to deposit federal dollars.

Representatives in support of the amendment said there are private donors and nonprofits looking to fund a program or mental health facilities, and the trust fund would accumulate interest to continue the suicide lifeline, no matter the amount put in.

“If we funded through a trust account, then we can reduce our budget in times when we have less money,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne. “And so that’s the purpose of this.”

The bill also includes direction for the Wyoming Department of Health to request an appropriation for implementing the program in its next standard budget request. Local Wyoming call centers are currently funded until the end of the biennium with American Rescue Plan Act dollars and will require $2 million from the general fund after that.

“One thing I’ve learned in this body is you don’t let perfect, and the way I want things, to be the enemy of good enough,” Brown said.

Despite there being no appropriation for the trust fund, his second amendment still divided the House.

Some state representatives questioned why there would need to be a “savings account” if there was no funding, and others said they weren’t inclined to make the assumption a trust fund was the right solution for a critical issue.

Similar arguments were made in opposition to an amendment brought by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, that preceded Brown’s compromise and was killed quickly on the floor. The Cheyenne lawmaker introduced an amendment to appropriate $4 million to start the trust fund and guarantee the suicide lifeline would be funded for two more years after the ARPA dollars ran out.

“Everybody knows where I’m at on this; I’ve testified. We beat this horse to death,” said Rep. Bill Allemand, R-Midwest. “You have an aye vote if this amendment fails; you have a no vote if it passes.”

Allemand was still adamantly against the creation of the trust fund without the $4 million. He ultimately voted no on the bill, and said “ A hurtful no,” when his name was called for roll. A point of order was called before the vote continued.

HB 65 passed the House in a 38-23-1 vote.

It would formally establish the suicide lifeline program, create a trust fund without an initial appropriation, and direct WDH to add the lifeline to its general fund budget request, if it passes unchanged in the Senate.

This story was published on Jan. 26, 2023.

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