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Governor Keating has singled out Oklahoma veterans programs for one of the largest cuts in his proposed executive budget, a move that has surprised and angered a State Senator who oversees veterans affairs issues.
"Our veterans deserve the very best services we can provide them, but it's difficult to deliver quality care when Governor Keating is cutting the programs that they rely on," said Senator Sam Helton, chairman of the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee.
In his executive budget for the coming fiscal year, Governor Keating has proposed cutting the state appropriation of the Department of Veterans Affairs by 8 percent or $1.65 million. The Governor also wants to cut another $360,000 in state funds from the veterans agency's current fiscal year budget.
The only agencies targeted by the Governor for larger cuts as a percentage of their budget were the Department of Environmental Quality (11.6%), the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (12.6%) and the Secretary of State (13.2%) and the Securities Commission (10.9%).
"I think any cut to veterans programs is unacceptable, but a reduction the size that Governor Keating is advocating would be devastating. Those men and women risked life and limb for our country, and the Governor is rewarding them by cutting their programs," said Senator Helton.
The proposed reduction would be especially damaging because the majority of the agency's budget -- approximately 81 percent -- pays for the salaries of staff.
"When you cut the veterans budget, it's the same as cutting the staff people who care for our veterans. When staff is cut in a nursing setting, it detracts from the quality of care patients receive," noted Senator Helton.
"The Governor isn't cutting bureaucratic fat; he's cutting our veterans programs."
The Governor's proposed reduction is in sharp contrast to the budget request filed by the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. The agency has asked for a $2.8 million budget increase to fund the hiring of 12 skilled nursing and rehabilitation workers, 15 support staff workers and 110 nursing assistants. The additional staff would bring Oklahoma to the standards of patient care established by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Even though the state agency also receives federal funding and veterans social security payments to help cover costs at its six state veterans centers, the southwest Oklahoma legislator said there is no legitimate reason to cut state support for veterans programs.
"If anything, our veterans centers need more state money, not less. They shouldn't be punished because they receive funding from other sources. It doesn't make sense to cut veterans centers, especially at a time when we have a budget surplus," said Senator Helton.
According to budget estimates, state leaders have more than $314 million in additional funding to appropriate this year. Still, the Governor has proposed cuts to a number of agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Not only is the Governor cutting veterans, he's singled them out for one of the biggest budget hits. I don't think we should be balancing the budget on the backs of our veterans," said Senator Helton.
This isn't the first time Governor Keating has tried to cut Oklahoma veterans programs. During his first year in office in 1995, the Governor proposed a 6 percent cut to the veterans department. He backed away from his plan after angry protests from veterans across the state.
In a letter to Governor Keating, Senator Helton urged the state chief executive to reevaluate his latest proposal and retract it, just as he did five years ago.
"I am encouraging the Governor to change his budget so that it protects our veterans, rather than hurts them. They deserve the very best."