The legislature works best when Democrats and Republicans work together to solve our most pressing issues. Wisconsin is facing a mental health crisis, particularity among our youth, and the legislature has the ability to fix it.
A while back I met with a constituent who, with tears in his eyes, told me the story of his son who suffers from mental health issues and has repeatedly gotten into trouble with the law. His teenage son ended up at the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison where he was repeatedly bullied, harassed, and beaten by fellow inmates. Fearing for his son’s safety, my constituent lobbied to have his son transferred to the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. At the treatment center, the bullying stopped and the teenage boy was able to get the mental health care services that he desperately needed.
Last year the legislature passed a bi-partisan law to close the long troubled juvenile prison system, including Lincoln Hills, and replace it with more regional facilities and programming. The goal of the bill is to move away from an incarceration model to a community-based therapeutic setting that provides trauma-informed care. The bill included $40 million for counties to provide programming for lower level risk juveniles, $25 million for the Department of Corrections (DOC), and $15 million to expand the services at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. The understanding was that this would be a down payment to get things moving as this amount of money is not enough to accomplish the goal of community-based care.
In Governor Evers’s first budget he added an additional $40 million for counties ($80 million total), $90 million for DOC ($115 million total), and $43 million for Mendota ($58 million total). The Republican controlled legislature, through the Joint Finance Committee budget process, proceeded to make changes to the governor’s budget. They left the funding for counties at $80 million, cut the DOC budget by $115 million (zeroed out), and cut $15 million from the Mendota budget. The $15 million from the Mendota budget was then earmarked at the last minute with no public comment or vetting for two proposed brick-and-mortar projects in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls. This earmark was requested by a Republican senator who proposed giving it to a private institution in her district. To me, this is a serious red flag. In the past, Republicans have pledged not to do earmarks in the state budget as they can be used in corrupt and unethical ways. Continuing with this earmark would create a dangerous precedent.
The Building Commission is the appropriate way to fund state building projects. The Commission evaluates the need and feasibility, allows the public to weigh in on the merits, and requires an honest vote on all state building projects. The earmark essentially was a no-strings-attached handout to a private entity to build two brand new wings onto their hospitals with little to no transparency. The way the earmark was written, there was no guarantee that these buildings would be used for mental health care or emergency detentions into the future.
We also are statutorily committed to closing down and replacing the juvenile prisons. The $15 million is being used to help accomplish this and I am not going to support slowing down this process while children suffer abuse at the Lincoln Hills facility. These are the main reasons why I supported the governor’s veto of the earmark in the budget.
The problem with access to mental health care and emergency detentions isn’t brick-and-mortar based. It is unequivocally tied to Wisconsin’s low Medicaid reimbursement rates. I have long fought for increasing the reimbursement rates and expanding Medicaid access in Wisconsin. Doing this will save the state millions of dollars and provide more people with coverage. The governor’s budget recognized this but, unfortunately, the GOP controlled legislature cut $45 million for behavioral health and another $25 million for crisis intervention centers. We need to do better.
We are also in dire need of a more regional approach to mental health related Chapter 51 emergency detentions. Northern Wisconsin law enforcement officers often have to travel great distances to the Winnebago facility in east central Wisconsin. This is taxing on county budgets, officers, law enforcement departments, and is inhumane for those being detained. Building new facilities in the west central region of Wisconsin, to the tune of $15 million, is an expensive price tag for not much of a difference in travel for many northern Wisconsin communities. This is why I have co-sponsored a bi-partisan bill, AB433 (https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2019/proposals/reg/asm/bill/ab433), authored by an Assembly Republican that will create a grant program to provide five regional mental health emergency detention centers. The same day we voted on the veto override for the $15 million earmark, we also voted on bringing AB433 up for consideration. It was voted down on party lines. We can do better.
In addition, another bill, AB443 (https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2019/proposals/reg/asm/bill/ab443), has been offered by the Senator that requested the earmark. The bill mirrors the earmark and through the bill-making process, both the Senator and the hospital had the ability to identify potential problems with the bill. It is my understanding that they are working on amending the bill to address those problems. This bill must specifically address that this facility shall be continually available for emergency detentions and not converted to some other form of health care in the future. Going through the bill-making process, as opposed to an earmark, is the responsible way of passing legislation to allow for proper vetting.
Both of these bills are supported by the state’s law enforcement associations and I have a commitment from Governor Evers that, if properly vetted, he will sign one of them into law. I prefer the regional approach as we would end up with a facility in the north, rather than a facility hours away in the Chippewa Valley region of central Wisconsin. However, if the Chippewa Valley facilities are our only option, I will give them my full consideration should they come up for a vote.
Working together to solve our problems is what we are elected to do. It may be more work, but in the end the outcome is usually greater because of it. It is time the legislature stop playing political games with our mental health care crisis, and get to work finding bi-partisan solutions to our most pressing issues.