Senate leader calls for tax for mental health

Of the Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A key Oregon legislator called Wednesday for a new tax to pay for a major investment in mental health treatment, saying recent mass shootings in the nation had made it “game-change time.”

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, proposed a dedicated tax or fee to raise $331 million during the next two-year budget period to fully fund community mental-health services.

He said mental health consistently loses out to other priorities in the fight for scarce dollars from the state general fund, leaving thousands of people with untreated psychiatric illnesses.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, would support a dedicated fund for mental health, although there hasn't been enough time to sift through the details of funding, said Jared Mason-Gere, a spokesman for Kotek.

In the debate over preventing gun violence, everyone seems to agree on the need for better mental health treatment, Courtney said.

However, he said he's tired of hearing politicians, activists and the media talk about the issue without any serious effort to improve it.

“Either do something, or stop using the term, because you're creating an expectation and you're creating more pain, whether you know it or not,” he said. “There's people that could really use the help.”

Details still need to be worked out, he said, but a tax on beer and wine could be a component. He said he's not interested in seeking a ballot measure and won't use his power as Senate president to strong-arm it through the Legislature.

“If this conversation is only about dollars and cents, then we're not going to do it,” Courtney said.

Oregon Winegrowers Association lobbyist Dan Jarman said wineries recognize the importance of doing their share to support adequate mental health services.

“Most Oregon wineries are small businesses, and we would seek to minimize the adverse impacts on our industry, especially small wineries, or consumers of fine Oregon wines,” Jarman said.

Courtney said the state is currently serving less than half of the adults and about a third of the young people who need mental-health treatment.

It would cost about $46 million to fully fund mental-health services for children, teens and young adults, according to the Oregon Health Authority, and $285 million for adults.