Advocates, lawmakers seek more money for veteran services

Activists brought their concerns to a Legislature busy trying to fill a $1.6 billion shortfall

The U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, March 31, 2015. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
The U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, March 31, 2015. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

SALEM, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Oregon veterans’ groups have been up in arms since the governor’s budget reduced allocations to the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs from the state’s general fund and backfilled it with most of the lottery fund dollars set aside for veterans’ services by a voter-approved ballot measure.

Now they’ve brought their concerns to a Legislature busy trying to fill a $1.6 billion shortfall.

Ballot Measure 96 amended the state’s constitution to allocate 1.5 percent of state lottery net proceeds to direct services for veterans.

Advocates have been vocal about what they say is a need for more support — such as for veterans’ services officers, who help returned veterans sign up for federal benefits.

Byron Whipple, a veterans’ services officer in Union County, told legislators last month that in his area of northeastern Oregon, veterans face problems accessing travel to get medical care.

In February, community members housed a 75-year-old veteran with dementia for five days because local agencies could not arrange services for him sooner, Whipple wrote in testimony to the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Transportation and Economic Development.

“We do not have local missions and shelters that certain cities and counties have,” Whipple wrote. “We do not have the extra tax dollars to fund these emergencies. Last November, we did have hope.”

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In December, Gov. Kate Brown released a budget that decreased the amount of general fund dollars for veterans’ services from $10 million to $2 million, provoking the ire of veterans’ advocates, who said that the ballot measure was intended to supplement, not supplant, current state funding for veterans.

The Governor’s Office said in a statement this week that at $19.8 million, the governor’s budget reflected the intent of Measure 96 by increasing the overall budget for the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Although $19.8 million would be a near doubling of funding for veterans’ services in the next budget cycle, veterans groups’ say it’s not enough, and that the governor’s plan may meet the letter, but not the spirit, of Measure 96.

The co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, the legislative budget-writing committee, proposed $23.5 million in combined lottery and general funds for veterans’ services as part of their preliminary spending framework in January.

Some legislators have called for boosting the amount higher still.

State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, is one of them.

Evans acknowledged in a statement Thursday that state legislators were facing an “extraordinarily difficult budget environment.”

“Now we have to find a way to increase funding to a level where we can do some real good for the men and women we’ve sent into harm’s way, while also strengthening our schools, providing quality health care and investing in other critical services,” Evans said.

Freshman Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, wants to bump the amount of money the veterans’ services program gets by amending the agency’s funding bill, bringing the total to about $30 million for veterans’ services.

Noble says he wants to obey the will of the voters. According to the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office, 83 percent of Oregon voters voted in favor of Measure 96.

However, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office, the measure did not require that the amount of money allocated to veterans’ services in the general fund be maintained.

“There’s nothing in the bill that says you cannot supplant the dollars,” Noble said. “But I think that’s, I’m going to be blunt, I think that’s just a chicken way out.”

Noble did not have specific proposals Thursday as to where he’d cut back elsewhere in the state’s general fund to increase veterans’ services.

He said the state could be more efficient, and that he is preparing to provide more details at future meetings of the Ways and Means Subcommittee reviewing the ODVA budget, of which he is a member.

Supporters of more funding, such as Noble and State Rep. Julie Parrish, R-Tualatin/West Linn, argue that an up-front investment in direct services will bring more revenue to the state down the line by increasing the amount of federal benefits Oregon’s veterans receive. They claim it will also lessen the burden on other areas of the state budget, such as health care and housing.

Parrish was behind the legislative proposal that was referred to voters, and said in a phone interview Thursday that it was not her intention to backfill a lower general fund budget with the lottery funds.

Furthermore, she believes the state has the resources to pay for the veterans’ services that advocates want.

She said she was working on a bill to curtail the costs of healthcare for public employees.

“We have the money,” Parrish said, “We’re just not holding state agencies accountable for how we’re spending it.”