With veterans groups set to rally at the State Capitol Tuesday, State Senator Sam Helton renewed his call for Governor Keating to rescind his proposed cut to veterans programs, saying the Governor's office hasn't been able to justify its recommended 8 percent reduction in state funding.
"Our veterans programs need more state support, not the budget cut Governor Keating has recommended. I don't think we should be trying to balance the budget on the backs of the men and women who served our country, especially in a year when surplus revenue is available," said Senator Sam Helton, chairman of the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee.
The state lawmaker wrote Governor Keating on February 11th shortly after he released his executive budget, urging him to rethink his proposal to cut $1.65 million in state funds from the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. An official with the Governor's Office of Finance rebuffed Senator Helton's request, however, asserting that veterans programs could afford to take a state budget hit because they were also supported by federal money and a revolving fund that contained veterans' social security payments.
"I don't think it's right to tell veterans that we're going to cut their state support just because their own social security dollars and other federal money are available to use on veterans programs. In effect, Governor Keating is punishing veterans simply because they and the federal government are footing part of the bill for their services," said Senator Helton.
"Our veterans never shirked their duty; I don't think the state should shirk its duty to them by cutting the state funds that pay for their programs."
Even though the Governor's office believes that the Oklahoma Department for Veterans Affairs can absorb a $1.65 million reduction in state funds, the agency had actually requested a budget increase this year to address staff shortages in Oklahoma's six veterans centers. The agency has asked for $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.
"If we cut state veterans funding as Governor Keating has recommended, we're just going to make a staff shortage at our veterans centers even worse. That means our veterans aren't going to get the kind of quality care that they need and deserve. I don't see how we can do that in good
conscience," said Senator Helton.
The 8 percent veterans cut proposed by Governor Keating is one of the biggest hits he has asked an agency to take this year. Only four other agencies were targeted for reductions larger than the veterans department.
"I don't think veterans funding should be cut at all, much less be subjected to one of the biggest cuts in state government. I really hope that Governor Keating will change his mind on this issue," said Senator Helton.
If he does, it won't be the first time that Governor Keating has reversed field on proposed a veterans cut. During his first year in office in 1995, the Governor initially proposed a 6 percent reduction in veterans funding, but backed away from the proposal after heavy criticism from veterans organizations.
Senator Helton said tomorrow -- Veterans' Awareness Day at the State Capitol -- would be a perfect time for Governor Keating to retract his latest budget cut proposal.
"It's my hope that when Governor Keating sees all of our veterans at the Capitol, he'll realize just how important it is to continue full state support of veterans programs. I know that they're not too happy about the Governor's proposed cuts and I'm sure they'll communicate that message to
him," said Senator Helton.