Friday, January 14, 2011

New California Budget would cut aid to veterans

Critics decry proposed $10 million cut in help for service members
By MARK WALKER - mlwalker@nctimes.com | Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 6:16 pm
Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to slash $12.5 billion from California's budget could slam the door on the state's fledgling Operation Welcome Home program for troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, and drastically reduce the services provided by county veterans offices.
The governor's proposed budget, unveiled Monday, would trim nearly $10 million from the California Department of Veterans Affairs by eliminating general fund support specifically for the two programs.
The department operates veterans homes, including one in Chula Vista, and provides medical care and a variety of other services under its current annual budget of about $420 million. About $229 million of that money comes from the state's general fund.
Two area legislators called the governor's proposal misguided.
An area veterans services officer said it would be "devastating."
A lobbyist for veterans groups said the "bean counters just don't get it."
"I absolutely know we can find $10 million in this budget to support those efforts," said state Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Carlsbad, on Tuesday.
Wyland, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said closing programs that help veterans during wartime is wrong
"Because of what veterans have given to this country and the importance of them knowing what services are available, it is nearly unconscionable to cut that budget," he said.
Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, whose district includes a portion of Southwest Riverside County, called the proposal a "short-sighted move that serves neither state finances nor our veterans well."
Cook, who heads the Assembly's Veterans Affairs Committee, said studies have shown that county veterans services offices actually produce more money for the state than they cost to operate. They do so because veterans wind up obtaining an array of services from the federal government they might not otherwise get.
"Each year, with minimal funding, these officers help thousands of veterans gain $250 million in new federal aid for California, money that goes into the state's economy," he said. "They bring in over $100 in federal funding for every $1 that is budgeted to them."
California has nearly 2 million veterans, according to a September report from the Department of Veterans Affairs. About 234,000 live in San Diego County, which has the largest concentration of active duty and retired military personnel in the country.
Riverside County is home to about 130,000 veterans.
Bill Earl, who runs the Riverside County Veterans Services office, said Tuesday he may be forced to close satellite offices in Hemet and Indio and eliminate walk-in services.
"It would be devastating," Earl said of the proposed funding cuts. "We figure we would lose about $350,000, and our hope would be that maybe the county would give us some of that money back, but it's broke, too."
In San Diego County, Veterans Services Officer Tom Splitgerber said it was too early to say how his operations in San Diego, Escondido and Oceanside would be affected.
"We're taking a wait-and-see attitude right now," he said.
The Riverside and San Diego County offices combined assisted about 40,000 veterans in the last year.
It was just last June that then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled Operation Welcome Home, a statewide effort to connect the estimated 30,000 veterans who return from overseas each year with services to help them "transition from the battlefront to the home front."
Pete Conaty, a longtime Sacramento lobbyist whose clients include veterans groups, said cutting the two services ignores 15 years of data showing that investing in the service offices is a good deal.
"The bean counters just don't get it," he said. "The point is, we are an income generator."
The groups Conaty represents will lobby the Legislature and Brown to keep the funding in place, he said.
As of late Tuesday, the governor's press office had not responded to requests for more information.
Former Oceanside City Councilman Rocky Chavez, acting director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, issued a prepared statement saying the agency could continue providing the help veterans need.
The statement did not explain how that would be accomplished if the cut goes through. A spokesman said Chavez was traveling and unavailable for comment.
Call staff writer Mark Walker at 760-740-3529.

---------------- "And so the greatest of American triumphs... became a peculiarly joyless victory. We had won the Cold War, but there would be no parades." -- Robert M. Gates, 1996