Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2014

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THE STATE BUDGET:

Veterans keeping wish-list moderate

Agency chief hopes lawmakers will preserve benefits, services in a budget season marked by deep cuts

For military veterans, the small things matter. Like being able to take advantage of disabled parking privileges and still have a Purple Heart license plate.

They’re hoping state lawmakers will grant at least that much of their wish list when the Legislature begins its legislative session in February.

But some of the veterans’ more ambitious goals will be tough sells.

They’d like to see a new nursing home in Sparks to serve the northern part of the state and new language defining which disabled veterans qualify for property tax exemptions. But those cost money.

So, like many other agencies, the Nevada Veterans Services Office is mostly hoping to protect benefits, programs and services it has.

“We can’t lose a single inch,” Tim Tetz, the agency’s director said, noting the various tax exemptions afforded to veterans could be vulnerable given the state’s desperate need for cash.

The state is struggling as it is to keep up with the needs of veterans. The percentage of veterans per capita in Nevada is 3 percent higher than the national average, yet the state is 48th in the nation for per capita federal compensation and pension benefits.

Tetz attributes that shortcoming to not having enough veteran service outreach officers.

“And until we do we’ll fall further and further behind,” he said.

The outreach efforts are key to getting veterans the benefits they are entitled to for their service. The state has one service officer for every 18,000 vets in the state, almost twice the national ratio of 1 to 10,000.

Tetz is testifying before the Legislature’s budget committees today to lay out the agency’s needs and budget.

The Nevada State Veterans Home in Boulder City is absorbing all the cuts in the agency’s state funding for fiscal years 2010 and 2011. The governor has recommended that the home receive 51 percent and 73 percent less money in 2010 and 2011, respectively. However, the agency expects an increase in federal funding for the home that will make up for the gutting by the state.

Federal funding also helps the agency achieve other necessities, such as an emergency expansion the 4-acre the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery, which has used all of its single burial vaults.

Much of what veterans have identified as important are modest goals. They’re trying to find a sponsor for a bill that would allow handicapped veterans who use Purple Heart license plates to have the disabled-veteran designation added to the plate so they can use benefits afforded handicapped motorists. They’d like to create a gold-star license plate for family members of those killed in action. And they want all the veteran license plates to be applicable for motorcycles.

Veterans also would like to see increased hunting and fishing privileges for active duty and National Guard members, so “when they come home from deployments they can actually enjoy Nevada,” Tetz said.

Two goals proved contentious when introduced in the 2007 Legislature. Efforts to better define “veteran” — which affects who gets access to various state benefits — collapsed when two vets went door-to-door in the Legislative Building, telling lawmakers it was a bad idea. And an attempt two years ago to prohibit protests at military funerals got as far as a compromise struck by veterans and the American Civil Liberties Union, but the session concluded before the bill could be approved.

Veterans are riled about having turn over $1.9 million in reimbursement from Medicaid to the state’s general fund. Many veterans believe the money was given for the care of vets and should stay with the agency, and want new budget rules to allow the agency to keep any extra money received from Washington once the state’s general fund is reimbursed.

One of the challenges veterans face in Carson City is speaking with one voice — witness how the two vets upended the effort to redefine “veterans.” At the legislative summit the group held in November, Tetz and others urged unity.

Tetz also delicately instructed veterans who work as advocates in Carson City to stay on topic, keep it brief and to try not to “beat up the people who know are going to vote for us.”

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