The Select Committee on Veterans Housing owes its origin to a bit of troubling math. Earlier this year, House members took testimony on the need for
$19 million in capital investment to upgrade the Minnesota Veterans Home in Minneapolis. With that state aid, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA) could look to tap a federal matching grant of $35 million.
The state investment was ultimately approved as part of the last-minute bonding bill passed last session. But Democratic leadership was concerned about what kind of result the state would get for its investment: The Minneapolis facility would use the combined $54 million to add about 100 beds for veterans, a rate that works out to more than $500,000 per bed.
House Capital Investment Committee chair Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said the cost seemed exorbitant. At that price, Hausman joked, the state could afford to buy each of those 100 veterans a nice house of their own.
With outstanding bonding bids for new facilities in Bemidji, Brainerd, Montevideo and Willmar, House Speaker Paul Thissen hatched the select committee to look into a possible long-term change to the current method of caring for retired members of the armed forces. And Thissen named Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, to serve as committee chair, a choice that Hausman now calls “brilliant.” Newton spent more than two decades in the U.S. Army, retiring as a command sergeant major, a background that, according to his fellow committee members, will enable Newton to stand firm under pressure from veterans’ groups.
“He doesn’t get intimidated,” Hausman said.
Committee report gets MDVA rebuke
Newton’s nerve has already faced a first public test, when the committee released its report on the topic earlier this month. The document included a series of recommendations meant to guide policy and funding priorities in future legislative sessions. If approved by the Legislature, the recommendations would shift the state away from the current system, which relies on larger facilities housing dozens or hundreds of veterans, toward an approach that favors smaller home- and community-based care settings.
The committee did not have to wait long before finding out what the MDVA thought of the recommendations. In harshly critical testimony, Commissioner Larry Shellito said the report was “steeped in innuendo, short on substance … and long on assumptions.”
“For me to allow this to be your final report is a blow to the members and the purpose of this committee,” Shellito said.
Shellito testified that past problems with veterans’ home management had been alleviated since MDVA took control of the state’s five veterans homes in 2007, telling legislators that the agency had made significant progress in the ensuing years. Specifically, Shellito condemned recommendations that would lead to an increasingly decentralized system for housing veterans, saying centralization had allowed the MDVA to deliver consistent services to the veterans in its care.
“[Centralization] is critical to the work that we do taking care of veterans,” he testified.
For his part, Newton said he was not surprised that Shellito rejected the report’s findings.
“It’s very hard for any organization to change,” Newton said, adding that Shellito’s reaction was “actually a little milder than I expected.”
New federal benchmark next year
One major policy change that could come out of the report is a move to reprioritize how the state evaluates new applicants for veterans’ housing. Under current rules, the state treats applications on a first-come, first-served basis. The committee report recommends giving precedence to veterans who sustained serious injuries in combat, followed by all other veterans. Ranking last on the new priority list would be non-veteran spouses, who would only be provided for if all eligible veterans already had already been accommodated.
That scenario seems unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. The state currently has 1,058 beds for veterans, a cap imposed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The waiting list for Minnesota veterans and their spouses currently contains about 1,000 names.
MDVA Deputy Commissioner Mike Galluci said he has been in touch with the federal V.A. to communicate the state’s unmet needs. The federal government readjusts the veterans’ bed allotment for each state every four years, and the next set of figures is scheduled to come out in 2014. Galluci said the state is hoping for a bed count increase of at least 10 percent.
The recommendations will play heavily into the way Hausman approaches her task of writing a bonding bill during the upcoming session. She plans to include something in the neighborhood of
$80 million for affordable housing projects throughout the state, which she hopes could be leveraged with additional funding from nonprofit service agencies that provide in-home and community care. Hausman also wants to include smaller amounts of money to allow work to begin on veterans’ homes in Montevideo and Willmar, both of which have been seeking capital investment dollars for most of the past decade.
Hausman said she has virtually stopped negotiating with the MDVA, which she said has found inflexible on the topic of any change to the current veterans housing program, despite what she sees as clear evidence of its inadequacy.
“Why do they want to stay trapped in a system that isn’t working?” she said.
For his part, Newton said he was pleased that the committee report was adopted by unanimous vote, despite Shellito’s stated opposition.
Looking toward next year, Newton said he suspects finding bipartisan support might become more difficult when the recommendations are crafted into policy and funding bills. Veterans’ lobbying groups are well organized and powerful, Newton observed, and could pressure their local legislators if they are not won over by the select committee’s thinking.
“Where we’re going to run into problems, if there are any, is when we start having legislation introduced,” Newton said.