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Shift would bump up programs

Published (3/28/2008)
By Lee Ann Schutz
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Although the governor would bump up the Department of Veterans Affairs General Fund budget allocation by $5.8 million in the current biennium, the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division has other ideas — a more than $3.5 million cut to the department over the same period.

But numbers can be deceiving, and with a shift of some unexpended money in one account, hopes are other programs in agriculture and veterans affairs could see more dollars.

“We can do that,” said Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar), chairman of the division. “All our accounts (departments of agriculture, veterans affairs and the Board of Animal Health) are in one, so we can move funds from one department to another.” The reductions and the new additions to some programs still hit the target set forth by House leadership of a $2.4 million overall biennial budget increase. The governor proposes an $8.4 million increase.

The division’s omnibus finance bill (HF3981), sponsored by Juhnke, would reduce by more than $10 million an appropriation made in 2007 for the state’s GI bill program, which provides tuition assistance for veterans and their spouses at any Minnesota post-secondary institution. Juhnke said the amount still sits waiting to be used, “mainly because of benefits coming from the federal government that we didn’t know of at the time. So we are basically encumbering it in other parts of the bill.”

The division is also looking to reduce in Fiscal Year 2009 a $1 million appropriation to the former veterans homes board, which was abolished in November. There would also be a savings of more than $2 million over the 2010-11 biennium, as well. Juhnke said with the state’s veterans homes now under the administration of the department, there would be financial savings. He stressed, however, the reductions would solely be in the area of administration, and not in patient care.

In Fiscal Year 2009, the County Veterans Services Offices program would see a $500,000 base increase, and the State Soldiers Assistance fund would see a $3.5 million increase, $2 million of which would be added to the base. A new program providing statewide community-based casework services would be funded with $1 million in Fiscal Year 2009.

The bill was approved by the division March 26, and incorporated by the House Finance Committee into the supplemental budget bill (HF1812) the following day.

A companion bill, SF3633, sponsored by Sen. Jim Vickerman (DFL-Tracy), awaits action in the Senate Agriculture and Veterans Committee.

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