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Shawn Vestal: Lawmakers’ fear, as seen in salamander saga, has real effects

It’s all well and good for those of us here on earth to make fun of Idaho’s lawmakers for their rejection of an eighth-grader’s request to declare the Idaho giant salamander as the state amphibian.

After all, they’re probably saving that official designation – as the Gem State’s most distinctive form of cold-blooded, tiny-brained vertebrates – for themselves.

But the paranoid attitudes about “government overreach” that were taken to such farcical extremes last week in the House State Affairs Committee do more than simply disappoint hardworking, civic-minded young people. They also serve, again and again, as the justifications to deny important services for adults in crisis.

An excellent example: Opposition from North Idaho lawmakers to starting a crisis center for mental health care in Coeur d’Alene last year helped ensure that the center went to Idaho Falls instead. These overnight centers are invaluable in helping people in the midst of mental health crises make it through to the other side, alive and well. They also help relieve the burden on overcrowded jails and emergency rooms.

But several North Idaho lawmakers – Kathy Sims, Vito Barbieri, Bob Nonini and Ron Mendive – were so afraid that crisis centers were just another Orwellian government intrusion that they voted against them.

The bill passed anyway, but the center went to Idaho Falls – despite the fact that Coeur d’Alene was ranked as the front-runner for the facility. The governor said that the “outstanding” support from Idaho Falls legislators was a key reason the center went there.

This year, Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, and others are going to take another run at it. Gov. Butch Otter has proposed opening another crisis center in the state, saying they save money and improve services. Malek said he is hopeful that his constituents are reaching out to the lawmakers who “didn’t understand” this last time around, and changing their minds.

“I’m confident that is happening,” Malek said Tuesday.

But he also said that people in North Idaho who support the idea should not sit back and assume that the merits of the program will be obvious to their representatives. “If this is important to them, they need to contact their legislator,” he said.

Malek made his disappointment clear last year, telling the Coeur d’Alene Press, “There’s outrage among those who understand the problem that there wasn’t more understanding on the part of some legislators as how much this would have saved the taxpayers and citizens of our county.”

More understanding. What a nice way to put it. A round-the-clock crisis center – beyond the apparently negligible benefit of helping people in need – would ease the financial burden and workloads in the places where our failure to care for the mentally ill spills over: jails and hospitals. In a series of Press stories last year, the costs of the status quo were outlined starkly. Kootenai County budgeted $1 million to cover “involuntary holds” of the mentally ill. Law enforcement agencies all over North Idaho spend money hauling mentally ill people to the nearest available facilities.

“It costs us thousands of dollars in overtime to treat someone who should be treated locally,” Post Falls Police Chief Scot Haug told the Press. “Imagine taking someone who has high anxiety and something’s triggered their illness and now we’re taking them out of their comfort zone and out of the community they live in. When they’re done being treated, who transports them back home?

“To me, it’s not good customer service and not the way a community should be treating mentally ill people in their community.”

A crisis center costs between $1 million and $2 million a year to operate, depending on the particulars. If the governor’s proposal moves forward, there would presumably be another round of competition among cities. Everybody who knows anything about it says it will save money overall, as well as improve treatment options for people who really need it.

If North Idaho’s No Brigade needs help understanding that, maybe they could consult an eighth-grader.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.