Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tucson Lawmakers' Bill to Boost Mental Health Services Dies

Posted By on Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 1:30 PM

A bill that aimed to give Tucson a sense of closure after the January 2011 shooting died last week and there have been no shortage of reminders for Tucson about community violence in the days following.

A heap of records came out of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department on Wednesday; former mayoral candidate Shaun McClusky is garnering national attention for attempt to curb community violence by handing out shotguns in high-crime neighborhoods; and on March 22 the University of Arizona had its own shooting scare.

HB 2570, by Rep. Ethan Orr (R-Tucson) and Rep. Victoria Steele (D-Tucson) aimed to increase community awareness of mental health issues by taking $250,000 from the general fund to expand the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Mental Health First Aid program.

The bill passed out of the House (54-4) smoothly, but it didn’t get on the agenda for the Senate Health and Human Services Committee in time because the committee's chair, Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, didn't like the bill's cost. Orr said he met Barto, R-Phoenix, and chatted about her concerns. Orr said he was willing to amend the bill so that it was only a symbolic call to support for more mental health awareness in hopes of hammering out more funding for the program in coming budget talks.

The only trick was that there wasn’t enough time to get that amendment in, Orr said, so he offered to make changes by the time the bill got to the Senate Appropriations Committee. After talking with Barto, Orr and Steele got consent from everyone on the committee to add the bill to the agenda late. Because of the bill's tardiness to the agenda all committee members had to approve in order to hear the bill.

Everyone was on board until it came time to actually hear the bill.

In committee, Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, asked if the bill had been amended and since it hadn’t she asked if she could pull her consent. Sen. Judy Burges, R-Sun City West, followed suit, effectively killing the bill.

Orr called Yee’s decision to withdraw “a surprising breach of protocol.” He said he thinks it is possible that she withdrew her consent because of personal reasons over one of her bills that they didn’t see eye to eye on. He said he wished that she had spoken to him before it came time to hear the bill.

Yee said it wasn’t personal and that it was just because there wasn’t an amendment and she thought there was going to be one. She said she pulled her consent because she was honoring Barto’s decision to not hear the bill while it had a fiscal impact.

Oddly though, Barto said she wanted to hear the bill and move it on to Appropriations. During the committee, Barto tried to appease Yee by suggesting they do a verbal amendment and pointed out that the whole reason the bill is assigned to Appropriations is because it involves money and that the fiscal impact could be cut out in that committee.

Barto’s take on Yee’s explanation that she was standing by her?

“I guess she doesn’t want to give you any other information about it,” Barto said.

“You know there is nothing you can do when members object and you need to have their cooperation to have a bill heard. I’m not going to impune my members.”

While the bill may be done, Orr and Steele are still seeking out ways to bring the idea back and insist the effort is far from finished.

The setback hit Orr much harder than he expected.

Orr was visibly shaken the day after the bill was sacked. He was emotional when Tucson Weekly first spoke to him about what happened, noting that he needed to take time to compose himself, stating that it was “Gabby’s bill.”

Orr said he could almost barely function after the bill was bumped because of how personal his attachment to it had become.

“Many people from Southern Arizona, myself included, saw this as a way to help people get closure for what happened and to do our small part to make sure it never happens again,” Orr said.

Orr said he doesn’t think Yee understood the emotional meaning the bill had for those in Southern Arizona.

“We all suffer from PTSD a little bit,” Orr said. “These were our friends. I didn’t start out emotionally attached to this bill, I thought it was good policy, bipartisan and I love it, but it became to me my way of honoring my friends that were dead.”

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