Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, called today for a "game-changing" investment in Oregon community mental health programs, but stopped short of specific recommendations on how to pay for $331 million in additional spending. Courtney noted that a number of funding options were under consideration — including a dedicated beer and wine tax increase.
The champion of replacing the state mental hospital nearly a decade ago, Courtney has maintained a passionate interest in treating the one in eight children and one in 18 adults in Oregon who suffer from mental illness.
He cited "recent tragedies," including the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as a reason to act now to bolster mental health treatment programs.
Courtney's early-session pitch for mental health funding increases follows a tradition in Oregon of an issue quickly rising to the surface and changing the complexion of an entire session. In the 2011 session, an opinion from Legislative Counsel about federal tax reconnect legislation put pressure on the evenly divided Oregon House and its unique power-sharing agreement, which produced a solution without a political meltdown.
The longest serving Oregon legislator, Courtney said, "Nearly two-thirds of young Oregonians who need mental health services aren't getting them. We have to do better. Before we can fill their minds with knowledge, we need to make sure their minds are healthy."
A press release issued by Courtney said $285 million is needed for crisis services, case management, outpatient programs and housing for mentally ill adults. Another $46 million is need for programs for children and young adults.
"The earlier mental illness is identified and treated," Courtney said, "the better the outcome." He put the priority on improving mental health services for Oregonians 25 years and younger. The Senate President indicated he is "working to identify potential dedicated funding sources" to pay for his proposed mental health spending increase. "If we're going to get serious about treating mental illness in our state, we have to get serious about funding mental health services in the state."
Beer and wine tax increases have been targeted before to boost community mental health programs, but the legislature hasn't approved them, in part because it would take a huge increase to raise the kind of money Courtney is seeking.
A tax hike requires a three-fifths majority in the House and Senate, which means attracting at least some Republican votes. There isn't a guarantee all Democrats would vote for any particular tax increase, including increasing beer and wine taxes.
Courtney's spending request compounds the budget dilemma already faced by the legislature, which received a proposed budget from Governor Kitzhaber that balances with existing revenue on the back of significant savings in public employee retirement and public safety reforms as well as extensions of hospital and nursing facility provider taxes.
"This is more than a budget issue," Courtney said. "Treatment can change people's lives. Treatment reduces drug and alcohol abuse. Treatment can improve relationships and save families. It can make people better employees. It can make them better parents. It can make them better citizens."