MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A bipartisan Wisconsin legislative task force reversed course Wednesday by recommending the faster release of funding for a suicide prevention hotline after it had initially called for the Legislature to pass a bill to award the money, which would take much longer.
The fight over the $110,000 annual grant has broken down over partisan lines, even as Democrats and Republicans on the suicide prevention task force managed to agree on a host of other recommendations to reduce the number of suicides in Wisconsin.
Democrats — including four who served on the task force — said the group’s recommendations weren’t meaningful because they didn’t include the passage a “red flag” law through which judges could temporarily take away firearms from people deemed to be suicidal or a risk to others.
Democrats argue keeping guns away from suicidal people would make it more difficult for them to kill themselves. Between 2013 and 2017, guns were used in 49% of Wisconsin suicides, according to the state Department of Health Services.
Republicans oppose a “red flag” law, saying it would infringe on people’s Second Amendment rights.
“The bottom line is that indefensible adherence to extreme ideology on gun violence is a bigger priority for Republicans than reducing the number of suicides,” Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said.
The fight over funding for the suicide prevention line angered Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke.
“It doesn’t really surprise me anymore that Wisconsin Democrats take a bipartisan task force and utilize it for partisan purposes,” he said. “Instead of rallying around the things we agree on and moving most things forward, they choose to utilize this task force for partisan political purposes.”
The funding was included in the state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in July. It would help fund the privately operated Suicide Hopeline, run by the nonprofit Center for Suicide Awareness based in Kaukauna, which is in Steineke’s district. It provides immediate help to people in crisis by sending text messages.
Even though the grant funding was in the state budget, in order for the grant to be awarded, the Legislature’s GOP-controlled budget committee had to release the money.
Republican leaders refused to do that, saying they were waiting for recommendations from the task force called together by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
A draft of their recommendations obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday showed that the panel planned to ask for a bill to be passed to allow for the grant money to be awarded. That is a process that could take weeks or longer, much slower than having the budget committee vote to release the funding.
However, the recommendation changed in the final report that task force members presented at a news conference Wednesday morning. The group is now asking for the budget committee to release the money, as Democrats have long called for.
Rep. Steve Doyle, the Democratic vice-chair of the task force, said the decision to change course was made on Tuesday. Steineke said the changes had been discussed for about a week. Republicans wanted to tie the release of the grant to new reporting requirements, which he said lawmakers initially thought could only be done by passing a bill. But Steineke said those requirements can be imposed by the budget committee when it releases the money.
Budget committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, a Republican, said the panel would meet as soon as possible to release the money.
The political fight over the grant money threatened to distract from other recommendations to spend roughly $1 million on suicide prevention efforts in Wisconsin.
Other recommendations from the task force include creating a new statewide suicide-prevention program that would be housed at the Department of Health Services; spending $250,000 a year on grants to local government and private groups for suicide prevention programs; and awarding $500,000 would be made available under a competitive grant program for high schools to support peer-to-peer suicide prevention programs.