Veterans programs dodge budget-balancing ax

Greeting soldiers home
Thousands of Minnesota National Guard troops returned home recently, and many legislators are making sure service programs for veterans avoid the deep spending cuts required this legislative session to balance the budget.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Lawmakers are considering deep spending cuts to erase a nearly $1 billion budget deficit, but so far, veterans programs have been off limits from cuts.

Lawmakers have also introduced dozens of new initiatives aimed at helping or honoring men and women who've served in the armed forces and Minnesota's military veterans could come out as the big winners in an otherwise bleak legislative session.

Gov. Pawlenty made his budget priorities clear before the start of the 2010 session.

"I will tell you flat out, I don't think all things are of equal importance," Pawlenty said. "Some things are more important, and one thing that goes to the top of the list is supporting our members of the military and our veterans."

The Republican governor stuck to his commitment in a budget-balancing proposal that cuts spending in most areas, while protecting veterans and military affairs. DFL leaders in the House and Senate are taking a similar approach in their budget plans.

DFL Sen. Jim Vickerman of Tracy, chairman of the Senate agriculture and veterans committee, said the recent return of thousands of National Guard troops means the need for support services is greater than ever.

"We've disrupted these people," Vickerman said. "They're fighting and protecting so I can sit at this desk and visit with you. If it wasn't for that, this country would be in a terrible fix."

"Some things are more important, and one thing that goes to the top of the list is supporting our members of the military and our veterans."

Vickerman and his House counterpart, DFL Rep. Al Juhnke of Willmar, have also looked for additional funds to boost a few key programs. Juhnke said his priorities include staffing for a new dementia/Alzheimer unit in Fergus Falls and additional support for a statewide mental health counseling project.

Veterans programs represent less than 1 percent of state spending, but Juhnke said it's a fraction legislators are willing to fight for.

"These days it's pretty politically sound to say you support veterans and to make sure that we're keeping the resources, whether it's at a veteran's home or whether it's a country veteran's service office, grant money or whatever it is, to make sure those dollars preserved for veterans," Juhnke said. "I think people understand too long we ignored a whole group of veterans from the Vietnam War. I don't think we're apt to make that mistake again."

Legislators are paying attention to veterans in numerous ways. There are bills to create two new holidays: American Legion Day and Veterans of Foreign Wars Day. Other proposals would create or extend benefits related to counseling, higher education, and small business operation and veteran's cemeteries. And a few early measures dealt with making sure returning National Guard troops get their promised pay.

DFL Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes of Winona is sponsoring several veterans-related bills this session, including a measure providing free state park permits.

"It will salute our troops at home by saying we acknowledge that you want to get out to the state parks, and here's one way we're letting you know we care and value your service," Erickson Ropes said. "It's not a big price tag on that, but it's a small way to say thank you and keep them in our thoughts."

Veterans are also casting a long shadow over other policy decisions this session. During the debate over General Assistance Medical Care, several legislators talked about the health care needs of an estimated 8,000 homeless veterans. Republican Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton took offense. Magnus claimed GAMC supporters were ignoring other programs available to needy veterans in order to make their case for GAMC.

"I'm getting calls from my fellow veterans that are upset about using veterans, waving the flag, for them to get this hopelessness turned around," Magnus said.

Despite the favorable environment for veterans bills this session, fiscal realities have kept most of the bills small or largely symbolic. Rep. Juhnke said a proposed income tax break for military pensions is one example of a worthy idea that the state simply cannot afford. The benefit would have cost an estimated $15 million over two years.

House and Senate veterans committees finished work on budget bills this week, and will complete policy bills by the end of the month.

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