Advisory vote 36: New tax to support creation of WA suicide prevention infrastructure

Oct 25, 2021

Credit Brandon Hollingsworth, Spokane Public Radio

On Washington ballots this month is an advisory question about a tax on phone lines and other telecommunications service. The money collected from that tax – more than $400 million over the next 10 years – is intended to fund a comprehensive suicide prevention service.

The federal government authorized a suicide prevention service called 988 last year. But it left specific plans to the states. Washington’s choice was to fund not only a hotline, but a unified system that will link different kinds of care in what supporters hope will be a more effective mental health care approach. The details are contained in Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1477, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law May 13.

When the bill was being debated in Olympia, no one came out against the 988 proposal. But a few of them did have questions about how all that tax money will be spent. Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby of Spokane, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, says he gets that. People are usually leery about government spending.

“It is safe to say everyone would have a version of ‘Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the guy behind the tree,'" Ormsby said. "That is just general philosophy of pretty much all folks, right? Because everybody feels like they’re doing their part.”

But Ormsby, a co-sponsor of the 988 bill, said suicide prevention lines already in existence aren’t large enough. And they don’t adequately connect different services into a logical chain of support. That’s why a statewide approach is the goal with 988.

“There are services out there that are available. I don’t think they’re – to my satisfaction – unified and that they complement each other in a way that would really serve to tackle the issue at hand,” Ormsby said.

The state has committed to collecting the tax and funneling it into creating the 988 infrastructure. But exactly how it will work is still being figured out. A committee is hammering out details about how different agencies will work together to help ensure no one falls through the cracks. Their first-draft report is due on New Year’s Day.