By Carrie Haderlie
Wyoming Tribune Eagle Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Wyoming legislative task force to focus on mental health for all ages


March 23, 2023

CHEYENNE — Wyoming’s speaker of the House of Representatives hopes to shine a spotlight on mental health issues across the state, removing “agency silos” through collaboration and common goals.

“I think mental health issues in Wyoming, and across America, are incredibly important,” Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said in a Friday morning interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “We see that with kids in schools, we see that with teachers, we see that in the general public. We see it in our suicide rates in Wyoming.”

Wyoming’s legislative Management Council voted 5-3 Thursday to create a Mental Health and Vulnerable Adult Task Force, as proposed by Sommers, who is the 2023-24 speaker of the House.

One goal of the task force, Sommers said, will be to examine the “agency silos” where mental health issues are addressed and to break down barriers to ensure synergy between efforts.

“Then also, (the task force will) determine where the holes are, where the gaps are that we need to fill,” Sommers said.

The task force will include three members of the House and three from the Senate, as well as state agency representation from the Department of Health, the Department of Family Services, the Department of Corrections and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The task force will focus on the unmet needs of adolescents with high behavioral needs, adults at risk, the diversion of mentally ill individuals from the court system, and on coordinating mental health services to meet K-12 needs. While the Joint Education Committee will also tackle mental health in schools during the interim before the 2024 budget session, the task force will focus on all ages.

“This mental health task force is for all ages,” Sommers said Friday. “Vulnerable adults can also have mental health issues, but there are other issues related to vulnerable adults. If you find what is classified as a vulnerable adult, someone who can’t take care of themselves … that can be beyond mental health and becomes physical health.

“So how can we, as a state, help them? We don’t really have the means to help a vulnerable adult now. You just have to find the good graces of some program to help,” Sommers said.

Also in the task force’s purview will be to continue work to “determine the role of state government in providing mental health services to the citizens of the state,” and recommendation of policies to define the role of state government in providing mental health services to the citizens of Wyoming.The task force will consider changes to conform with state statutes, with adopted policies regarding mental health services and also vulnerable adult statutes.

The task force has $50,000 allocated for its work during the interim. It will meet three times in person, with three potential virtual meetings, to develop legislative recommendations to send to standing committees. While a task force can’t propose legislation, it could work with standing committees on proposed legislation for the 2024 session, Sommers said.

“It could be legislation, working cooperatively with Joint Education to (propose bills),” Sommers said. “It could be redirecting current resources in different ways. Very likely, there could be a bill come out of it. I don’t know yet what that is. It’s part of the study.”

Management Council member Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said he planned to vote no on the task force Thursday.

“I think it deserves study, but I think this is premature in light of the executive branch and agencies already working on this,” Hicks said, pointing out that Gov. Mark Gordon’s health task force has a subcommittee focused on mental health.

“I don’t know how many of these topics overlap, or what the role of the agencies already involved in that task force (are),” Hicks said. “I am not trying to disparage the topic or the intent.

“I am going to be a no, not because of the substance or what we are trying to accomplish here. I just think, at this point in time, it is not ready for prime time, given all the other efforts that are out there, and not knowing how this either overlaps, complements or competes with those efforts,” Hicks said.

Sommers said that while he does worry about overlap, state agencies need to support “particularly the vulnerable adult piece.”

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, moved to approve the creation of the task force, and in a voice vote that followed, it was approved 5-3.

The Management Council also approved creating a subcommittee to look at the process for handling ethics complaints against legislators. There is currently “no written process in the Senate for dealing with ethical complaints,” Legislative Service Director

Matt Obrecht told the council.

The motion Thursday was to have two senators and two representatives look into the issue and report back to the Management Council before the 2024 session. Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, appointed Sen.Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. Sommers appointed Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, and Zwonitzer.

Driskill said he’d planned to create a three-member committee within the Senate tasked with the same topic, but that the Management Council process would cover the issue. Obrecht told Driskill that the Senate could come up with its own rules for dealing with complaints separate from the House, and vice versa.

Though the Management Council did not discuss any complaints specifically during Thursday’s meeting, two members of the public filed ethics complaints against Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, during the 2023 session. Bouchard then received a letter of reprimand from Driskill in early March.

The letter read that there would be no tolerance for any further substantiated complaints against Bouchard and detailed “threatening or profane comments you make against members of the public or your Senate colleagues.”

“While you may not agree, a member of the Wyoming Senate is held to a high standard of decorum while communicating with members of the public,” Driskill wrote. “Troubling me even further is the fact that during the last session, a member of the public filed a complaint against you for your abusive power during legislative committee meetings.

“Three complaints against you for very similar behavior are three complaints too many.”

This story was published on March 25, 2023.


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