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Governor Brown Vetoes Mental Health Bill

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Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill on Saturday which would have established a mental health services grant program for California public colleges and universities, including all University of California campuses.

The College Mental Health Services bill, AB 2017, passed Senate and Assembly in August with unanimous support and garnered enthusiasm among thousands of California students, but was vetoed by Brown due to his assertion that the legislation did not “specify the amount or source of funding” or address “the complexities of mental health funding.”

AB 2017 was introduced in February by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento). The bill sought to increase California students’ access to mental health services through programs including outreach and intervention, increasing counseling staff to student ratios and reducing racial disparities in access to mental health.

According to the legislation, “One in four students has a diagnosable mental illness and 40 percent of students do not seek mental health services when they need it…The demand for mental health services by public college students far outpaces the ability of colleges to provide them. California public college campuses and higher education systems do not meet national staffing standards for psychiatric services and other mental health professionals.”

Further, “Research shows that for each dollar invested in student prevention and early intervention mental health services, California will see a return of at least $6 and up to $11 as a result of more students graduating.”

The original draft of AB 2017 stipulated that portions of a $40 million grant, not exceeding $5 million per campus, would be given to any public college or university in California which could match the grant funds allocated to them.

The $40 million figure, which would have been transferred from California’s existing Mental Health Services Fund to the College Mental Health Services Trust Account, was removed in an amendment by the Senate Appropriations Committee before the bill reached Governor Brown. The amended version of the bill specified no concrete source or amount of funding, which Brown cited as the reason for his veto.

ASUCI’s former Mental Health Commissioner and UC Irvine’s current #HowAreYou campaign organizer, fifth-year Caroline Nguyen, suggested that a tenuous relationship with UC administrators could have caused the Committee’s fatal decision to remove a concrete dedication of funds from the legislation.

“There’s a lot of bad blood between UC administration and the legislature, and the denial of a firm dedication of $40 million is probably a result of the state’s reluctance to trust the UC with such a large amount,” said Nguyen.  “Unfortunately, students are the ones who suffer from this showdown.”

Hundreds of UC students, campus leaders and mental health activists have already expressed outrage at Brown’s decision, arguing that the governor’s lack of support for the bill suggests his preference for financial gain over student welfare on California campuses.

“Brown continuously prioritizes his miserly and parsimonious guarding of the state budget over being on the right side of history. The bill didn’t even have dedicated funding attached to it, and he still vetoed it,” said Kevin Sabo, former President of the UC Student Association (2015-16). “[Brown is] so privileged being a rich white man who can’t be bothered to… give students dealing with mental health issues the basic human dignity of knowing there’s somewhere they can go to survive.”

ASUCI President Tracy La agreed that Governor Brown “is not doing his part” to match the advocacy of UC students, particularly at UCI, on behalf of improved campus mental health resources.

“I cannot speak on behalf of [UCI students] as a whole, but based on the feedback that I’ve heard so far, many are furious and feel disenfranchised [by Brown’s veto],” said La. “They want to show that they’re going to do whatever they can to override this decision.”

La noted that in 2015, UC students approved a five percent Student Services Fee increase, 50 percent of which was allocated towards expanding UC mental health services. She argued that as AB 2017 “would not have cost the state a single additional dollar,” Brown’s failure to sign the bill sends a message that the state is not “willing to do their part to help students,” who are already financing a large portion of UC mental health services themselves.

“This bill would have provided students with greater access to mental health services. [If it had passed, students] would know that the state actually cares about our struggles and our wellbeing,” said La.

La encourages UCI students opposed to the governor’s decision to contact local representatives in California’s legislature and urge them to override Brown’s veto. A two-thirds vote in each house is required for an override.

Nguyen, too, hopes that UC students will continue to advocate for state support of expanded mental health services on campuses across California.

“For now, the immediate plan is for the statewide UC Student Association, California State Student Association, and Student Senate for California Community Colleges to collectively release letters, petitions, or op-eds urging the Legislature to overturn the Governor’s veto,” said Nguyen. “The critical need for students’ mental health services must override [Brown’s] fiscal conservatism.”