By Maya Shimizu Harris
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Gov. Mark Gordon can count many wins during this year’s legislative session.
The supplemental budget bill aligned closely with what he proposed and also put away roughly $1.4 billion in savings. The Legislature boosted pay for state employees to counteract inflation and invested in the state’s economic development.
But not everything went as the governor had hoped.
He told reporters Tuesday that lawmakers’ decision not to provide sustainable funding for suicide prevention programs in Wyoming was “a big disappointment.”
“We are the worst state in the nation for suicide. We have two counties in our state that have the worst records for suicide. And not to recognize that as not only an important issue, but a pro-life issue, and (that) we need to get ahead of it, was a big disappointment to me,” Gordon said at a Tuesday press conference, using language that typically describes anti-abortion matters.
One major bill this year aimed to fund Wyoming’s 24/7 suicide prevention hotline and other suicide prevention services for the long term by creating a trust fund and reserve account with $46 million to pay for those programs.
While the Legislature passed the bill to make the trust fund and reserve account, lawmakers stripped the original $46 million earmark; legislators who were hesitant about the bill questioned whether or not the hotline and other proposed suicide prevention services actually work, and if paying for those services are worthwhile expenditures for the state.
Under the bill that Gordon ultimately signed into law, the Wyoming Department of Health will have to request money for these services in its 2024-2025 budget and seek donations to keep the programs going.
Right now, the Wyoming Department of Health only has enough funding to keep the 24/7 suicide hotline going through the end of 2025.
On top of that, lawmakers added a sunset date to the legislation for July 2028.
Gordon has made suicide prevention one of the primary focuses of his governorship, assembling a mental health task force and co-hosting the state’s first mental health summit in Casper during his first term.
In his State of the State speech at the beginning of this year’s legislative session, he urged lawmakers to address mental health issues, noting that depression, substance abuse, isolation and suicidal thoughts are “all too prevalent” across Wyoming.
“Suicide continues to be an extraordinarily big challenge for Wyoming, and I’m very hopeful that future legislatures will look at it as importantly as I do,” Gordon said Tuesday.
While the Legislature knocked down funding for House Bill 65, it did pass other health-related bills backed by Gordon.
On Friday, Gordon signed into law legislation that extends postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to one year. He called the legislation a “very strong pro life bill” on Tuesday, again using language typically reserved for anti-abortion matters.
Others have described the bill as “pro-life” as well.
Rep. Jeanette Ward, an anti-abortion freshman lawmaker, said at a committee meeting in January that she believes using the “pro life” label shouldn’t be used “as a justification to expand entitlement programs.”
In another approach to addressing Wyoming’s mental health crisis, lawmakers also passed two bills that allow Wyoming to enter into interstate compact agreements for some mental health professionals. The legislation will allow these professionals to practice in the states that have joined the group without having to get separate licenses for each state.