Members of the state's Suicide Prevention Task Force are forgoing a bill to direct funding toward a crisis hotline and instead recommending the Legislature's budget committee release the money that's already been approved for the service.
The bill was included in a draft memo shared with the Cap Times Tuesday. The legislation would have built on a provision included in the state budget to appropriate funding for the Center for Suicide Awareness' HOPELINE that provides resources for people in crisis.
It also would have further delayed the distribution of the funding, which has yet to be released by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee, despite it passing in the state budget signed by Gov. Tony Evers in July. The money could have been released at any point in the last couple months.
But a later overview of the task force's recommendations, distributed to reporters during a Capitol news conference Wednesday, didn't include the legislation and instead recommended the funding be released — with new requirements.
Task force chair and state Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, didn't say exactly at what point the decision was made to no longer include the bill among the panel's recommendations.
Instead, she said conversations with the Joint Finance Committee had been ongoing and the intention was the center would get its funding.
"The original idea in doing the task force was to find a better way to use our resources here in the state," she said Wednesday morning. "We are working through the best possible process so that a text-based or app-based process will be helpful to folks in Wisconsin."
The legislation referenced in an earlier version of the memo would have had the Department of Health Services award $110,000 annually to support a text or app-based suicide prevention program and direct the recipient to share data it collects with the state.
But the latest version instead recommends the Joint Finance Committee approve a motion to do all that, rather than have the state pass a separate bill.
Ballweg said she was "disappointed" that an early version had been released to reporters, adding that a “sensitive and important issue has fallen prey to political headlines.”
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, wrote in a tweet the "changes had been made long before someone tried to set the narrative by releasing an incomplete early draft."
But task force vice chair and state Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, said it wasn't until Tuesday that he found out the legislative recommendation had been changed.
The budget had allocated $220,000 toward the Center for Suicide Awareness, though the Joint Finance Committee has to approve its release before the money can go out.
Joint Finance Committee Co-chair John Nygren, R-Marinette, said in a statement the panel had planned to wait to review recommendations from the task force before releasing any funding. He also pledged to have the committee "meet as soon as possible to release funds that have been set aside.”
In all, the task force's updated legislative recommendations consist of nine bills totaling less than $1 million annually.
But Doyle said he'd prefer to see the state spend five times that amount.
“My job throughout this process is going to say, 'hey Joint Finance, hey legislative leadership, we have an $81 billion budget, $5 million to save people's lives is not asking too much, how about we ratchet it up a bit?'” Doyle said.
Overall, the bill recommendations seek to to bolster public awareness, combat suicide and provide assistance to at-risk individuals.
On preventing suicides through the use of firearms, one bill would direct DHS to award $150,000 each biennium in grants to train staff at firearm retailers or ranges on how to avoid selling or renting a firearm to someone who could be considering suicide, among other things.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, slammed Republicans for their "indefensible adherence to extreme ideology on gun violence" over aiming to reduce the number of suicides in the state.
He also bashed the Republican members of the task force for ignoring a possible "red flag" bill that would allow family members or police to ask a court to take firearms from an individual who's considered dangerous. Democrats and Evers earlier this month announced legislation on the topic.
That bill, he said, "would directly address the issue of access to firearms for those at risk."
Meanwhile, another change between the earlier memo obtained by reporters and the latest draft includes the amount of money that would be designated toward tuition grants for low-income farmers who take courses on farm and business management techniques.
Rather than allocating $10,000 a biennium, as was stated in the earlier version, the updated one would spend $100,000 every two years on the effort.