Republican lawmakers on Wednesday blasted Gov. Tony Evers and his administration for what they say is bureaucratic red tape holding up the release of state funds to a suicide prevention program.
Evers and Republicans approved $220,000 in funding for the Center for Suicide Awareness in the state budget, but the Kaukauna-based organization has still not received the funds, even after a key committee authorized their release earlier this month.
“We’ve been patient, we’ve been respectful, but that funding was allocated back in July,” said Barb Bigalke, the center’s executive director. “We need to move forward on this so we can get our work done. It’s just barrier after barrier.”
The Center for Suicide Awareness runs the Suicide Hopeline, which provides immediate emotional support and resources for people in crisis via text message. Bigalke said she needs the $110,000 in annual funding to pay for software upgrades and to collect data and distribute information about the service to counties across the state.
It also collects data about the program’s communications that can help local governments better address suicide. The organization so far has intervened in at least 110 suicide attempts since 2014.
“With a topic as sensitive as suicide prevention, one would hope that Governor Evers and his team would move with expediency knowing that every minute we wait we could be saving lives,” Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, despite receiving calls from both sides of the aisle to move expediently to invest in this preventative program, the administration seems to be folding to bureaucratic red tape and threatening Wisconsin citizens’ access to this critical, life-saving service.”
Steineke wrote a letter inquiring about the status of the funds to the Department of Health Services, which is now tasked with releasing the money. Bigalke told Steineke release of the funding could take months.
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DHS spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said the funding will be released soon, and that the department on Thursday requested an exception to speed up the release of the funds.
She declined to provide a specific timeline but said once the exception is granted, DHS will draw up a contract for the center to sign and the funds will be sent.
Funding for the program has been a point of contention in the Capitol for months.
Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee had the ability to release the money at any time after the budget’s passage in July, but chose not to do so, arguing they should wait to allow the Assembly’s Suicide Prevention Task Force to recommend the best responsible use of the funds.
But the task force had planned to recommend a bill be passed to release the funds, meaning it could have taken several months until Bigalke’s organization saw the money, if ever.
Republicans eventually changed course and authorized the release of the funds in early October. Before Wednesday, Miller said release was pending due to “a standard procurement and contracting process involved in releasing state funds.”
On Twitter, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, argued Evers should bypass the standard procurement process, allowable under urgent and emergency circumstances.
DHS appeared to do that Thursday by requesting the Department of Administration allow an exception from standard procurement policies.