The story is told of when the French ambassador to Spain met Miquel Cervantes. He congratulated Cervantes on his book “Don Quixote.” Cervantes whispered in the Frenchman’s ear, “Had it not been for the Inquisition, I could have made my book much more interesting.”
That reminded me of the Wyoming legislature. I spent 44 years working those halls. From 1967 until 2011, I attended every session; as a reporter, as a legislator for a decade, a lobbyist for 22 years and an agency head for eight. Each experience was uplifting and pleasant except those last eight years, which caused the PTSD preventing me from walking those halls today.
Many legislators have unsupported suspicions that agencies are hiding something and if they dig enough they’ll find it. With few facts and little background, they substitute the modicum of their knowledge for that of “in the trenches” professionals who work fulltime in programs these legislators blindly target during their brief 40-day stint in the Capitol City.
Observations from the sidelines support a belief that it’s gotten worse. Some members are more ideological, less aware government workings, and more given to operate on notions and prejudices. They venture outside of their lanes of expertise, entering debates armed with preconceived assumptions rather than facts.
Representative Tom Walters (R-Natrona) and his war on Wyoming’s suicide prevention work is an example. Walters has no background in the complex issues of prevention. He’s a rancher with a degree in Animal Science whose biography says he’s a member of two organizations; the Fair Board and the Natrona County Republican Party. He also has a personal vendetta against the Department of Health’s suicide prevention program. And he has a platform. He’s a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Wyoming has a serious suicide problem. In 2015, 157 of our neighbors took their own lives, the second most tragic rate in the country. In 2012, the state halted the distribution of prevention money to disconnected community programs using a hodgepodge of non-science-based ideas to address the problem. Instead, funds were granted to a single agency, the Prevention Management Organization. It assures every community is served by well-trained personnel using best practices based on data and research.
That created a political problem. A program in Walters’ district lost funding. Someone complained. Without disclosing his relationship with the complainer, he took up the cause and still carries the flag five years later. Using his perch on the powerful Appropriations Committee, Walters offered this unsupported accusation, “This organization has had over five years now, six years, to get things straightened out, and they have not; and this department just continues to say ‘give us more time and we will make it work right.’ And they are proving that they just want more time and they're not getting it done.”
Walters ignored that in the last five years, the program conducted nearly 1600 sessions, training 45,000 Wyoming citizens on methods of helping suicidal friends make a different choice. Forty-four percent say they’ve actually used those skills to prevent a suicide.
Based not on these facts but on Walters’ “alternative facts,” legislators slashed the prevention program by $2.1 million. The new cuts alarmed even the Governor who earlier reduced funding by 11%. Mead acknowledged that addressing suicide costs money adding, “There’s an even larger expense for not taking care of it.”
Ignoring some facts and distorting others is not ethical. Neither is the wide-spread practice of offering third reading amendments to avoid meaningful debate and public input. It’s trickery and it’s a strategy employed too often by your elected representatives. On third reading consideration of the budget bill, Walters took his vendetta the distance. He introduced an amendment to prohibit use of state funds for the Prevention Management Organization.
Although colleagues saw through the charade and voted down his last-minute attack, Walters seriously damaged critical suicide prevention work. To paraphrase Cervantes, “Had it not been for the legislative inquisition led by Walters, Wyoming’s suicide prevention effort could have been much more successful.”