CAPITOL

Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna

A Wisconsin crisis hotline is still waiting to receive the suicide prevention funding it was promised in the current biennial budget, state dollars that have been held up in the face of both legislative and administrative hurdles. 

While the money was included in the state's two-year spending plan and could have been awarded to the Center for Suicide Awareness' HOPELINE at any time, it wasn't until earlier this month that the Legislature's powerful budget committee opted to release the sum: $110,000 in each of the next two years. 

But despite getting the go-ahead to dole out the funding, nearly one month later, state government officials have yet to do so. 

"You feel like you’re just being tossed around like a tumbleweed," Center for Suicide Awareness head Barb Bigalke said of the process. "It shouldn’t be a political matter."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services, which is in charge of distributing the funding to the text-in support service, said the agency is working through the "normal course of business" to get the funding out the door and added it "will be released soon."  

But Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, in a letter to DHS Wednesday drew attention to the continued delay and knocked the "bureaucratic roadblocks within the administration" that he wrote are preventing the funds from being released. 

"Instead of saving lives, I fear that without your strong commitment to resolving the situation at hand, Wisconsinites suffering from mental illness will needlessly go without access to these vital services," Steineke wrote. The center is also based in Kaukauna. 

The release of the funding has been the source of some controversy in recent months, as the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee sought to hold off on awarding it until the state’s Suicide Prevention Task Force finalized its legislative recommendations, which it did in late September

The task force ultimately directed JFC to release the money, rather than going ahead with a new bill to direct funding toward the hotline, as lawmakers had been considering. Passing new legislation would have lengthened the process and further delayed the awarding of the funding. 

Earlier this month, the committee voted to allow DHS, rather than the Department of Public Instruction, to distribute the money. DPI was originally given the authority to do so in the budget. Transferring it to DHS, Bigalke said, "caused complications" and additional hurdles. 

"It’s very unnecessary, very unnecessary, and it’s just getting more and more tangled," she added. 

A DHS spokeswoman said to release the funding, the state has to go through a procurement process that includes requesting an exception from the Department of Administration and writing a contract for the center. A purchasing order would then need to be created before the dollars can be distributed. 

In the meantime, Bigalke — who applauded Steineke for "stepping up" and calling out the challenges the center has been facing in securing the funding — said she has "no clear date" of when the money will be released. 

The additional funding will go toward additional manpower and software updates that would allow the center to analyze who's utilizing the hotline and for what purposes. That information, Bigalke said, would help the center better decide how to allocate the money it receives toward services — such as ways to combat alcohol abuse or feelings of isolation. 

The hotline previously attempted to secure state funding during the last session, but legislation to do so died in the state Senate after unanimously clearing the Assembly

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.