As Gov. Evers calls for background checks and 'red flag' law, GOP introduces mental health legislation

MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans who continue to largely dismiss Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' call to pass gun safety legislation introduced a series of bills Tuesday to bolster mental health services in the state, a move they said was not in response to recent mass shootings.

Evers has called for the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass universal background checks and a "red flag" law that would establish a process to take guns away from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others. But Republican legislative leaders have either dodged questions about whether they support such ideas or refused to answer, instead emphasizing the need to improve mental health services.

On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Tittl, chairman of the Assembly's mental health committee, was the latest Republican to refuse to answer questions about whether he supports a universal background check. And he said a package of mental health bills that he and other Republican lawmakers and advocates unveiled was part of a yearslong push to improve mental health services and not a response to the shootings this month in Texas and Ohio that left 31 people dead.

Tittl noted that he first served on a legislative task force on mental health in 2013. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos launched another mental health task force this year.

"We have cared all along about mental health," Tittl said. "This is not a reaction at all to any of the shootings. This is basically a reaction to what we're working on."

The bills would make matching grants available for mental health centers and nonprofits across the state; provide a $100,000 income tax deduction for psychiatrists and double for those in more rural, underserved areas; and update standards and practices for psychologists. Those who spoke in support of the measures at a Capitol news conference included a person who said he's been battling mental illness for more than 25 years, the leader of the state Boys & Girls Clubs and the head of a Painting Pathways Clubhouse that provides mental health services.

Last week, Evers called Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to discuss passing the "red flag" and universal background check bills. Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said Evers and Vos were scheduled to meet on Wednesday, while a meeting with Fitzgerald had not yet been scheduled.

Vos said last week that he hoped to find common ground with Evers on mental health issues, which he called the "real problem," and not taking away rights of gun owners. Fitzgerald has not committed to taking any action, but like Vos he has been skeptical of universal background checks and "red flag" laws in the past.

Republicans have been wary to talk about gun control measures since the shootings. Last week, Republican Sen. Jerry Petrowski dodged questions about whether he would support universal background checks, saying he would have to see the bill first. But Petrowski, like many Republicans, said he thinks the emphasis should be on mental health services.