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Budget eliminates funding to local groups for honor guard services

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Roger Reller, of the American Legion in Austin, stands as part of the color guard during a deployment ceremony for 159 troops with the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment who depart for a one-year deployment to Kuwait later this year. Once there, they'll provide base management and convoy security for troops leaving Iraq. Budget cuts eliminated funding for honor guards. Groups like the American Legion will have to come up with more of their own money to provide honor guard services, such as those given to veterans who have died.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

As the American Legion hosts its national convention in Minneapolis this week, veterans groups in Minnesota learned that the state has eliminated funding to help pay for honor guards at veterans funerals.

That means groups like the American Legion will have to come up with more of their own money to give final honors to veterans who have died.

Since 2008, the state has given service organizations nearly $265,000 to provide military funeral honors. The money reimbursed honor guards that attended funerals for the state's veterans.

The amount is a tiny fraction of the state's $35 billion budget. Veterans Affairs Deputy Commissioner Reggie Worlds said the state allocated $100,000 a year for the program. It reimbursed organizations up to $50 for each funeral.

"As we take a look at the service organizations, many of them are struggling financially," Worlds said. "This was a way to assist them to provide that dignified burial by providing some reimbursements."

That financial assistance is ending because of the state's fiscal situation.  When Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature agreed on a plan to erase the state's $5 billion projected budget deficit, the honor guard reimbursement was among the programs they cut.

"We had to take a look at this internally and we realized where we were budgetarily in the state," Worlds said. "So we just decided not to pursue it this year. We're hoping that we're going to be in better fiscal shape next year."

Veterans groups across Minnesota, including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, say they rely on the money.

Bill Christenson, who directs the Honor Guard at the Albert Lea American Legion, said the organization has been reimbursed $10,000 since 2008.  He said the funds paid for uniforms, mileage, rifle shells used during military salutes and musicians who played Taps. He said he was surprised to learn that the grant funding would end.

"It would hurt, you bet," Christensen said. "When you talk about all of that money not available, we'll have to find some other way of doing it."

Federal law requires funeral honors for an eligible veteran if requested by the veteran's family.  At a minimum, the honors include presenting a folded American flag to the next of kin and playing Taps.

Despite the cuts, veterans groups will ensure veterans will receive their final honors, said John Marshall, who directs the Duluth Combined Honor Guard.

Marshall said his organization has received $25,300 in state funds since 2008.  Marshall said he understands that the state had to make budget cuts but isn't sure why this program was targeted.

"There is not one veteran that will go without military honors as long as I'm around," Marshall said. "There will never be a family that will ever be turned away.  No veteran will go without."

But Marshall said he's concerned about funding. He said the federal government also gives a $50 stipend to groups but the available national funds were spent early last year and he's worried that the money will run out this year.

If that happens, Marshall said he'll have "big problems" and will have to boost outside fundraising.  He said his group serves at about 200 funerals a year.

The funding cut surprised state Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, who chairs the House State Government Finance Committee. He said veterans and military affairs are the only groups that received a funding increase in the last budget.

Lanning thinks the Dayton Administration should continue paying for honor guards.

"I believe they have the flexibility in their programs to be able to fund this in the future should they choose to do that," he said.

Lanning, when asked why he didn't examine past budgets to see what programs would end, said that the House and Senate approved Dayton's full budget plan for veterans.

Even though the funding for the honor guards wasn't renewed this year, it's possible the funding could be restored. Lanning and Worlds both say they want to find the money to resume the program next year.