Calling it “absolutely critical,” Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill into law Thursday afternoon that aims to eventually provide perpetual funding for Wyoming’s two 988 suicide call centers.
While a state trust fund will start with no money in it, Gordon has said he hopes people will donate to boost it.
“To me this is absolutely critical of a pro-life stance and as a pro-life governor I’m very happy to sign this,” he said.
House Bill 65 establishes an unfunded trust account that the private sector can donate into, although it originally proposed the state seed the trust with $46 million. But the account was eventually stripped of the financial commitment, along with putting into the Wyoming Department of Health’s budget cycle for future funding requests.
Andi Summerville, executive director for the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers and a major supporter of the bill, said the final version signed by Gordon is still a win for the cause.
She said it will be critical for Wyoming to have an established funding source for the call centers when budget cuts are on the table.
“That’s going to be incredibly important to keeping it online all the time,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “Through the boom-and-bust cycles of the state, you see an increase in demand for (suicide support) services.”
Although he supports the bill as a whole and sees it as “a cure,” Gordon said he doesn’t like that the state will be charged with soliciting donations for the program.
“I don’t think it’s a good use of our resources to try to compete against the private sector that can offer those things,” he said.
Gordon has advocated for taking strong action to improve mental health in Wyoming.
The two call centers were first established in 2020 with limited hours of service with $250,000 of seed money from the state. Aside from a $400,000 allotment from the state’s general fund, the centers in 2022 upgraded to 24/7 service based on a two-year allocation of $2.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act money.
The call centers only have guaranteed funding for the next two years.
Wyoming has the highest per capita suicide rate in the country.
Preliminary numbers show that suicides dropped by about 20% last year after a slight decrease in 2021 as well.
Gordon has so far signed 90 bills into law from the 2023 legislative session, including eight others during Thursday’s ceremony:
House Bill 7
Raises the minimum age of marriage to 16.
The law disallows marriages involving people younger than 16, but does allow 16- or 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent. Those now under 16 and married will not have their marriages voided.
Former state legislator Charles Pelkey brought two underage marriage bills of his own while serving from 2015-20 and expressed gratitude to Gordon for signing the bill into law.
“The exceptions that are incorporated in this bill and the protections for youth are satisfactory,” he said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said one of the biggest inspirations for crafting the legislation is to prevent sex crimes or coercion situations that work around child protection laws.
House Bill 127
Requires health care facilities to allow clergy members to visit health care facilities.
Rep. Abby Angelos, R-Gillette, told Cowboy State Daily she was motivated to bring the bill when she saw clergy members like her father get shut out of hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During one committee meeting on the bill, a clergy member testified about recently being stopped from providing services at the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston because of a COVID outbreak there.
“We know that meeting the spiritual needs of other people is as important as their physical needs, so we definitely want to recognize that,” she said.
Angelos said all of the clergy members she knows would be glad to take all necessary precautions in order to enter these facilities safely.
House Bill 134
Specifies that a liquor licensee may buy up to nine liters of alcoholic beverages from a retail licensee holder or a manufacturer for resale.
Senate File 43
Allows Wyoming counties to establish Emergency Medical Services districts to help fund local ambulance crews. Local county commissioners will have the power to create and dissolve the districts.
Senate File 10
Allows licensed professional counselors to enter into a compact with other states for the goal of improved counseling services. The bill allows those licensed in one compact state to exercise a multistate licensure privilege in other states that are party to the compact.
House Bill 56
Provides for the designation of purple-star schools that take specific actions to assist military-connected students and specifies requirements to be considered a purple-star school.
The Wyoming Purple Star School Program recognizes the efforts of Wyoming K-12 schools that are committed and supportive of military students and families – known as military-connected – as they transition to their new homes and schools.
House Bill 44
Allows for the Wyoming Transportation Commission to use alternate contracting methods if necessary.
House Bill 279
Requires that photo identification must be provided to get an absentee voting ballot in person. This rule will not apply to those requesting an absentee ballot through writing or via telephone.
Gordon has signed at least 82 bills into law from the 2023 session.