By Mary Steurer and Victoria Eavis
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER —A legislative proposal to spend federal relief money on expanding the operations of Wyoming’s two suicide prevention hotlines succeeded Friday in the Senate after two previous attempts were rejected by lawmakers.
The new budget amendment passed Friday would devote $2.1 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for this purpose.
Wyoming had the highest rate of suicide in the U.S. in 2019, according to CDC data.
The state didn’t get its first two suicide hotlines until 2020. Neither runs 24-hours-a-day. Those who call after hours are transferred to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Advocates say expanding the hotlines’ services is needed to help connect people in crisis with local resources.
In December, Gov. Mark Gordon recommended giving the hotlines $7 million of ARPA money over 2022 and 2023. The state is set to receive more than $1 billion in ARPA funds. That $7 million was meant to allow the call centers to run 24/7, as well as help them build up their infrastructure.
The Joint Appropriations Committee struck that request from the ARPA budget in January, however.
Since then, a group of lawmakers and advocates has been trying to bring at least some of that money back.
The governor himself called for the Legislature to make room for suicide prevention funding in his State of the State address Monday.
In committee meetings and Senate sessions, some legislators were skeptical that the funding would be effective.
Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, said appropriations committee members may have voted against the proposal because they thought the hotlines already had enough funding.
“We didn’t say no to suicide prevention,” Gireau said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “What we said was, ‘We thought we’d already funded it in another form two years ago.’”
So supporters floated the proposal again, asking for less money.
In a Senate committee of the whole session Wednesday, Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, introduced an amendment to the ARPA budget draft that would set aside $3 million in relief money for the hotlines. That measure failed by a vote of 13-15.
On Friday, Baldwin introduced another amendment — this time during the bill’s third reading — to give the hotlines $2.1 million in relief money. That amendment passed 16-13.
That $2.1 million will be combined with an additional $400,000 set aside in the state budget for the hotlines over 2022 and 2023 fiscal years.
Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, said that the combined $2.5 million will be enough to make sure at least one of the two hotlines is running at all hours.
However, the House of Representatives must also weigh in on the spending.
“We’re gonna work hard to keep it in the House,” Summerville said in a text message to the Star-Tribune.
But that amount won’t cover everything, Summerville said.
This year, suicide prevention call centers across the country are making infrastructure changes in anticipation of the new “9-8-8” dial shortcut.
In 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a law making 988 the new dial code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which can now be reached at 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255).
More money is needed to help Wyoming’s hotlines make that transition, Summerville said.