Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) today proposed consolidating veterans services under a single state department and pledged to do more for the 780,000 former military men and women who live in the commonwealth.
But the governor said that there is no money to pay for additional employees to process health claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs because of the state's precarious financial situation. Warner and the legislature must find ways to close a $1.2 billion budget gap when the General Assembly convenes early next month.
The grim financial news rankled some veterans at Warner's afternoon news conference, despite generally positive reaction to his other proposals among leaders of veterans organizations who assembled to hear Warner's presentation.
"To provide the service, there has to be a marked increase in the number of claim officers that we have," John McAnaw, state legislative chairman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told Warner. "I just want to point out that we have a serious shortfall that needs to be addressed."
During the latest in a series of legislative announcements, Warner said he wants to create a Department of Veterans Services to take over functions now performed by two state agencies and three appointed boards. Warner predicted that the reorganization would have little financial impact.
If his proposals are approved by the General Assembly, he would appoint a commissioner of veterans services to oversee the state's services for veterans. Most veterans' benefits are provided by the federal government, but states help veterans in applying for services. The state also helps veterans with nursing, employment and burial.
"We want to give veterans one place to turn in the state for the help they need," Warner said. "We will be giving veterans a clear, high-level voice in state government . . . a single official that can be held accountable."
Warner also announced today that Virginia will contribute $340,000 to building the National World War II Memorial in the District. Virginia had been the only state that had not contributed. "We must honor our commitments," Warner said.
Roger Sullivan, 56, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Richmond, said he and some other members of the Virginia Veterans Coalition believe Warner has not done enough. "It's just rhetoric on paper," Sullivan said. He said Warner should have done more to increase the budget for veterans' services. "It's probably the same budget we had 20 years ago. The number of veterans has increased."
But S. Judson Stanley, chairman of the Virginia Veterans Coalition, praised Warner's actions. "The boards and commissions have been ineffective over the years," Stanley said. "It's not rhetoric as far as I'm concerned."