, , , , , ,

Gov. Tony Evers calls GOP cuts to mental health services in state budget ‘foolishness’

Republican-led budget committee cut more than 500 budget proposals Tuesday, including school mental health funding

Gov. Tony Evers stands at a podium during a speech.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers the biennial budget message Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said Republicans’ decision to completely cut his proposals for mental health funding from the next state budget is “foolishness.”

The governor toured the Coulee Recovery Center in La Crosse on Tuesday to promote his proposals to make 2023 the “Year of Mental Health” in Wisconsin. Evers proposed $500 million for mental health programs in the next state budget.

But many of those programs, including $235 million for mental health services in schools, were cut by the Republican-led budget committee during a vote on Tuesday. GOP lawmakers cut a total of 545 proposals, including a new paid family leave program, the legalization of marijuana and an enrollment freeze in the state’s voucher school program.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Evers said on Tuesday that he recently saw the impact of increased funding for school mental health during a visit to the Delavan-Darien School District. He said he met with 50 students who are trained as peer helpers on the issue of drug and alcohol abuse.

“That will stop happening next year because the Legislature decided to take the Kids Get Ahead initiative out of the budget,” Evers said. “The need is there. It’s an overwhelming need even in a smaller school district like Delavan-Darien where they are actually not only reaching out to kids, they’re reaching out to the community. They’re having mental health and behavioral health discussions in the community. That stops. That’s foolishness.”

He said the need to expand access to mental and behavioral health services is a “major issue” both in Wisconsin and across the country.

“We believe our efforts in the budget around mental and behavioral health and substance use were a reasonable approach. Just to kick it out of the budget indicates that the other side doesn’t care much about it,” he said.

But Republicans in the state Legislature said Tuesday the governor’s budget was unrealistic and out of step with their priorities. They voted to build the budget from “base,” which means they’ll add spending to the budget passed two years ago rather than the one Ever’s proposed to the Legislature in February.

The governor’s budget included continued funding for the state’s peer recovery centers, including the Coulee Recovery Center in La Crosse. The organization received a grant of $30,000 for five years from the state Department of Health Services in 2021.

Rita Von Haden, executive director of the Coulee Recovery Center, said the funding has made a difference in the peer support programming that they’re able to offer for free in the community. She said the funding specifically staffs their drop-in center, which offers a substance-free environment for people working through addiction and hosts special events for the community, including during Oktoberfest and St. Patrick’s Day weekend when alcohol and drug use may be prevalent. They see up to 25,000 visits by community members every year.

“It’s just really important to let our government understand the need to continue to fund these services,” Von Haden said. “A lot of individuals who need these services may not have good insurance, may not have insurance at all, and sometimes it really just needs to be something that they don’t have to pay for.”

Evers proposed allocating $260,000 in each year of the next budget to support the state’s existing eight peer recovery centers and the development of two more. That proposal survived the Legislature’s budget committee, which did not cut the peer support program from the budget.

Show your WPR support! Starting at $20/month. Give Now.