Democrats need some Republican support to pass a tax to fund the 988 suicide prevention hotline. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Democrats are seeking Republican support for a bill funding a suicide prevention hotline that requires bipartisan approval.
So far, it only has Democratic support, and Democrats no longer control three-fifths of the Legislature. They need at least a three-fifths vote to pass a new tax.
House Bill 2757 would permanently fund 988, a new behavioral health and suicide crisis hotline in Oregon, by creating a monthly, 50-cent fee on phone lines and other telecommunications services, akin to the $1.25 monthly tax for 911.
Democrats say the tax would provide stable funding for the new hotline, which went live nationwide in July 2022 and relies on a one-time budget allocation. Funding the call centers is a top priority for Gov. Tina Kotek.
Democrats controlling the House Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care passed the bill last month without support from any Republicans, who expressed concerns about a new tax.
Democrats, who lost their “supermajority” by a razor-thin margin last year, need the support of at least one Republican in the House to pass that chamber and a Republican or Independent in the state Senate.
Get help If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or need mental health help right now, call or text 988 or chat at www.988lifeline.org.
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or need mental health help right now, call or text 988 or chat at www.988lifeline.org.
“We know there is strong bipartisan support for the policy — including strong and unambiguous support from Republican members,” Holton said.
Congress designated 988 as the national mental health crisis hotline in 2020. In 2021, the Legislature committed $15 million to fund 988 call centers and mobile crisis services like the nationally-acclaimed Cahoots program in Eugene that respond to some calls.
The one-time funding for 988 isn’t enough to maintain or build the program, said Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, who is co-sponsoring the bill. She said the 50-cent tax is “worth every single dime.” Staff in 988 call centers are trained to address mental health crises and de-escalate suicidal callers. They can save lives, she said.
“It’s nothing when compared to the life of someone that you love or care about,” Sanchez said.
According to Stateline, five other states are considering a telecommunications tax to fund 988. In addition, five states have already enacted a fee.
Most calls, text and chats to 988 in Oregon are received by Lines for Life, said Holton. In February, Holton presented data to the House behavioral health committee that showed an uptick in calls.
“This project is growing at a rate that it’s very clear we’re going to need long-term stable funding to meet the needs of Oregonians,” Holton told the Capital Chronicle.
The February hearing drew emotional testimony from supporters including Salem Mayor Chris Hoy, who said his parents had attempted suicide.
Sanchez said the tax is intended to fully fund the 988 call center and commit funding for mobile crisis units. Those are teams of two responders trained in suicide risk assessment, de-escalation and more. Sanchez said those units aren’t fully deployed across Oregon’s counties and responses are spotty.
She originally sought a $1.25 fee for 988 to establish “parity” with 911 funding. The tax was whittled down because of objections from the telecommunications industry, she said.
CTIA, an industry trade association whose members include AT&T, Verizon and Amazon, is neutral on the bill. Jake Lestock, director of state legislative affairs at CTIA, wrote in a testimony that lawmakers should find a different funding source or lower the fee.
“During this time of economic uncertainty and increased costs impacting day-to-day living, enacting a new tax for 988 will especially affect working families and other Oregonians facing financial challenges,” Lestock wrote.
Republican members of the House behavioral health committee also criticized the tax when voting against the bill.
“I agree that 988 needs to be funded,” said Rep. Charlie Conrad of Lane County. But he called the tax “open-ended” and said the bill lacks financial details.
Rep. Ed Diehl, R-Stayton, said the bill is important to his constituents, but he wants to discuss alternative funding options.
“I think there’s another way to do it,” Diehl said.
The bill is pending consideration by the House Committee on Revenue.
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