JUNEAU – Sen. Joe Thomas is upset that promised funding for a state veterans cemetery in the Interior was among cuts Gov. Sarah Palin made to her proposed budget for fiscal year 2010, which starts in July.
The Fairbanks Democrat sits on the Senate Finance Committee, which likely will scrutinize Palin’s budget amendments early next week.
“I’m a little concerned,” he said. “It’s an important project, and it’s floundered around a bit in the past couple of years. I thought we were finally moving forward with it.”
He acknowledged the state’s financial situation is driving cuts, but he was troubled to see funding still in place for warm storage buildings and other projects instead.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski cited the veterans cemetery as a worthy state effort in her annual address to the Alaska Legislature on Thursday.
“Several in this body have asked the state to file its application and obtain funding for a cemetery in the Interior,” Murkowski said in her speech, singling out Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, for his years of work on the issue. “I strongly support their efforts.”
Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state, she pointed out, adding that she worked on the same issue about 10 years ago as a state legislator.
“I do appreciate that we are facing lean times,” she said. “We make the priorities. … I don’t think that we lose sight of those things where we can show our debt and our gratitude for those who have served our country.”
Three separate bills are churning in the state Legislature now that would create the state cemetery, but $750,000 in state funds has to be committed before the federal Veterans Administration will kick in the other 90 percent of the total project costs and move Alaska’s application forward.
“The governor very much supports the veterans cemetery,” said Karen Rehfeld, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The state planned to fund $250,000 in each of the next three years to meet the $750,000 share.
“With the decline in oil price and a $2 billion revenue shortfall, she (Palin) felt we could delay for a year,” Rehfeld said. “General (Craig) Campbell has discussed this with Rep. Guttenberg to reaffirm that the governor supports the project and that legislators can expect to see $250,000 in the budget next year.”
That pledge isn’t something Guttenberg is willing to count on, though.
A framed letter from Palin expressing her deep commitment to a veterans cemetery sits in his office.
“It’s a promise to veterans,” he said.
He’s confident the governor wouldn’t want to let veterans down, but he isn’t sure how to reconcile her words with the cut.
“I can’t believe they couldn’t figure out something to do,” he said. “We only get to use a cemetery once. Taking that option away takes it away forever.”
The federal Veterans’ Administration has a grant program to help fund state cemeteries, such as the one proposed for the Interior. Under that program, states can apply for federal money for cemetery construction, providing the states are willing to fund maintenance and operations.
Palin had $250,000 in her 2010 budget proposal for the veterans cemetery. However, she cut that money in a series of amendments issued Wednesday afternoon.
The money was to go to planning and design, with $250,000 in each of the ensuing two fiscal years for start-up costs until federal money becomes available.
“The sooner we can get on with the planning, the better off we’ll all be,” Thomas said. “It will set people’s minds at ease a little bit that they know that they are at least still in consideration, that they’re not just forgotten about after their service to the country.”
A total of $750,000 has to be committed by the state before the VA processes the grant application, said McHugh Pierre, spokesman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Guttenberg’s office drafted the grant proposal, which is under internal review, Pierre said. He expected to file the application next week and to meet with the federal program director.
Pierre said the state’s economic situation drove the funding withdrawal, but he remained optimistic.
“I don’t see this as a step that is going to stop getting the cemetery,” he said. “There is plenty of interest and support from the federal side. It’s just a matter of us putting this together in the most responsible way for Alaska.”
Alaska has two national veterans cemeteries, one in Sitka and one at Fort Richardson near Anchorage. The federal Veterans Administration has a goal of creating veterans cemeteries within a set radius of major population centers with a high number of veterans.
Fairbanks has the second-highest density of veterans in the state, with an estimated 11,000 living within a 75-mile radius of the borough.
Three separate bills in the Legislature advocate creation of a state veterans cemetery. House Bill 97, sponsored by Guttenberg with support from Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, and House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.
The House bill was approved by the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and referred to State Affairs. The Finance Committee also will have to hear the bill.
Also in play are two Senate bills. Thomas is the prime sponsor of SB 55, which has support from Sens. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, and Majority Leader Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage. Therriault also is a co-sponsor of Sen. Charlie Huggins’ SB 45 calling for a state cemetery.
Thomas’ version was referred to State Affairs and to Finance, but it hasn’t been heard in either committee yet. Huggins’ bill passed through State Affairs and was waived through Labor and Commerce with a referral to Finance. Bills without opposition can be waived past a committee at the committee chairman’s discretion.
The Veterans Administration estimates that 1,500 vets will die in the next 10 years around Fairbanks. About half are expected to seek burial in a state veterans cemetery.
Murkowski said she’ll help as she can.
“It may not be that this is the (state) budget cycle for this,” she said. “But if I can lend my support to an effort that would, again, honor our veterans, I am happy to do so.”
Fairbanks Daily News – Miner