Oklahoma veterans programs will receive less federal funding than expected next year, a development that makes Governor Keating's proposed cuts to the state veterans budget even more damaging than previously thought, according to a State Senator who has been leading the fight against the reductions.
"With the feds cutting back and Governor Keating cutting state programs, Oklahoma veterans are being hit with a double whammy. I hope this latest news will persuade the Governor to change his mind and spare veterans programs from his budget axe," said Senator Sam Helton, chairman of the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee.
The Oklahoma Department for Veterans Affairs recently learned that the federal per diem for veterans center residents will not increase as much as anticipated in fiscal year 2001. The state veterans agency had planned its budget on an expected 7 percent hike in the federal per diem, but the actual increase will be just 1.65 percent. The change will cost Oklahoma veterans programs approximately $285,000.
"That may not seem like a huge sum of money, but when you consider the additional $1.65 million cut proposed by the Governor, it really starts to add up. It amounts to a significant budget cut for an agency that needs more money to provide care to veterans, not less," said Senator Helton.
Oklahoma currently has six veterans centers located at Ardmore, Clinton, Claremore, Norman, Sulphur and Talihina. Another will soon be built in Lawton.
The veterans agency has requested a state budget increase to address staff shortages at those facilities. It needs $2.8 million in additional state funds to finance the hiring of 12 skilled nursing and rehabilitation workers, 15 support staff workers and 110 nursing assistants. The additional staff would bring Oklahoma to the standards of patient care established by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We're just trying to get up to the level of patient care recommended by the federal government. We won't get there if Governor Keating's proposed cuts go through," said Senator Helton.
In recommending a budget cut, Governor Keating has suggested that the veterans agency should rely more heavily on federal funds and the social security payments veterans make into a special revolving fund.
Senator Helton is hoping the latest reduction in federal funds will prompt the Governor to rethink his approach and give veterans programs the support they need.
"I hope Governor Keating will realize that we can't cut state funding without doing real damage to the quality of care our veterans receive. I think our country's heroes deserve better than the budget cut proposed by the Governor," said Senator Helton.
Although Senator Helton first asked Governor Keating to rescind his proposed budget cut in early February, the state chief executive has steadfastly maintained that he plans to cut veterans programs this year.
This is the second time that Governor Keating has proposed reductions in veterans funding. His first attempt in 1995 was unsuccessful, thanks in large part to the heavy opposition he received from veterans organizations.