Proposed cuts in the Department of Veterans Affairs spending for major construction and non-recurring maintenance are “deeply troubling” and threaten to derail efforts to update the department’s aging infrastructure, according to the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), raised the concerns Wednesday at the committee’s hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget.
Despite a 2013 budget that includes a 4.5 percent increase in discretionary spending for the VA, the request for major construction is $532 million, down from $1.074 billion in 2011 and $590 million in 2012.
The VA’s 10-year construction plan could cost as much as $65 billion, Murray noted.
“Despite this plan, for the past two years VA has requested only a fraction of the amount it needs,” Murray said. “I am disappointed at the size of the gap between the funding we need to bring facilities up to date and the funding requested from the Congress.”
With some 5,300 buildings, some of them more than 60 years old, the VA faces a “monumental task” in improving facilities to meet the growing use of its facilities, according to Raymond Kelley, director of national legislative service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Kelley said that at the current level of funding, it will take the VA more than 25 years to complete its 10-year plan.
The concerns were echoed by representatives of other veterans service organizations testifying at the hearing.
“Clearly, if this underfunding continues VA will never fix its identified deficiencies within its 10-year plan,” said William Schrier, representing the American Legion.
The $532 million in new budget authority for major construction includes funding for medical facility projects in Seattle, Dallas, Palo Alto and St. Louis, according to the VA.
The money will also be used to remove asbestos and other hazardous waste from VA buildings and to improve facility security.
“The budget request strikes the right balance between capital requirements and operating needs,” VA spokesman Josh Taylor said. “Regarding major construction, VA is being fiscally responsible and focusing on completing ongoing projects only, to address over $6 billion in ongoing partially funded projects.”
The VA has a separate minor construction request of $608 million, which will be used to improve and alter a variety of VA facilities around the country. The figure represents an increase from $467 million in 2011 and $482 million in 2012.
The concerns come against a backdrop of increased demands on VA services from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The big elephant in the room is the one million returning veterans,” said Sen. Scott Brown, (R-Mass.)
“History suggests that VA’s requirements from these two operations will continue to grow long after the last combatant leaves Afghanistan — maybe as much as a decade, maybe even more,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told the committee
Shinseki noted that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are using VA services “at unprecedented levels.”Out of 1.4 million who have returned from service in those wars, 67 percent have used some VA benefit or service — “a far higher percentage than those from previous wars,” Shinseki said.