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Veterans fight back over funding criticism

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Vets marching at Fort Snelling National Cemetary
In this May 2009 file photo, veterans march at Fort Snelling National Cemetery during a Memorial Day event.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Military veterans are strongly defending Gov. Pawlenty's use of the Support Our Troops license plate fund to pay the salary of one of his office staffers.

During a state Senate hearing Thursday, several veterans said the interagency transfer was appropriate, and they instead criticized legislators for raising questions about the arrangement.

A week ago, DFL legislators were voicing outrage over Gov. Pawlenty's growing use of interagency agreements to beef up his office staff.

They were particularly upset about the Republican governor's arrangement with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which transferred $30,000 from the Support Our Troops license plate fund.

But now, the outrage is coming from veterans.

Ralph Donais, chairman of the United Veterans Legislative Council of Minnesota, told members of the Senate Finance Committee that they had discredited an effort to help veterans without offering any proof of wrongdoing.

"Our Minnesota department of veterans serves our veterans well. To put a doubt in the minds of Minnesotans is a shameful thing to do," said Donais.

To put a doubt in the minds of Minnesotans [about veterans programs] is a shameful thing to do."

Al Holtan, commander of the Disabled American Veterans of Minnesota, said he was concerned the dustup might hurt sales of the special license plates.

"There have been negative articles in the newspaper, radio, the Internet, and now I heard this morning even on TV. And they are scaring people away from the Support Our Troops plates," said Holtan. "If this continues, there will be less money in that fund for the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the Department of Military Affairs, to do the important work they do."

Under an agreement signed last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs paid 25 percent of the salary for Pawlenty staffer Lee Buckley, who was working at the time as the governor's advisor on faith and community service initiatives. She has since transferred to another government job.

Deputy Commissioner Michel Pugliese said Buckley worked on outreach efforts to get veterans to use their entitled benefits.

"We were able to tap into an existing resource on a part-time, temporary basis to do this job. And she did it extremely well," said Pugliese. "And we're still receiving the dividends as the result of her hard work."

DFL legislators repeatedly assured Pugliese and the representatives of veterans organizations that they weren't questioning the use of the funds.

Sen. Rick Olseen, DFL-Harris, who proposed a bill to require a payback of the $30,000, said his intention was to reassure the public about the license plate fund. He said his bill would add some transparency and accountability.

"One of the things that is so important about these dollars, different from dollars we deal with every day, is that people are going above and beyond, and paying for this with their own money. This is not a tax collection. This is a donation that they're making," said Olseen.

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, also proposed a bill requiring tighter oversight for all interagency agreements. Just this year, the governor's office tapped $674,000 from two dozen departments to help pay staff salaries.

Betzold said he's concerned by the trend, when the state is facing a nearly $1 billion budget deficit.

"The interagency agreements have really spiked in using more people. And it's just a questionable trend at a time when we're telling everybody else to tighten your belt, do more with less and live within your means," said Betzold.

Republicans on the committee had a favorable view of the interagency deals. Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said the veterans outreach arrangement could serve as a model for other state government departments.

"We should look for more resource sharing opportunities, more interagency connections. And I think that's how we're going to survive the financial problems that we're having right now in this state," said Robling.

With concerned veterans looking on, the committee tabled both bills. Senate Finance Chairman Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said his committee will not revisit the issue again this session.