Veterans home transfers would create $19 million deficit for state

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Lawmakers would drive Wisconsin's veterans homes into the red if they approve the state Department of Veterans Affairs' budget proposal to keep transferring the homes' surplus revenue to a trust fund, according to a new report.

Legislators pulled tens of millions of dollars in surplus revenue from the homes over the last decade to shore up DVA's veterans trust fund. That account pays for a wide array of veteran services and benefits, including tuition reimbursement, grants and burial honors. The account is funded largely with revenue from loan repayments, federal grant and sales from the state veterans museum. But loan repayments have been dwindling over the past decade.

Democrats have argued the transfers are a bad idea. They say the homes need every cent as they grapple with staffing shortages.

DVA's 2019-21 budget request calls for shifting another $35.8 million from the homes to the trust fund. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo shows the transfer would place the homes in an $18.8 million deficit by July 1, 2021.

"Rather than profiting off veterans in nursing homes to backfill Republican budget deficits, we should be improving veteran care and expanding access to quality health services," Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat who requested the LFB memo, said in a statement.

The numbers are preliminary and will be revised as the governor's administration crafts the executive version of the budget ahead of a February introduction. Who will lead that effort is still in doubt; voters will choose between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democrat Tony Evers in November.

Whoever wins the election will face hard questions about where to find the money to keep the trust fund in the black.

DVA spokeswoman Carla Vigue pointed out the agency's budget request proposes using general state tax revenue to fill the trust fund. She called investing in veterans programs "an absolute priority for us."

The LFB memo, however, cautions that DVA didn't set a limit on spending general tax dollars and it's not clear under what conditions the agency could use that money.

Chris Borgerding, an aide to state Rep. John Nygren, the finance committee co-chairman, said Nygren was in Washington, D.C., for an opioid conference and had no immediate comment.

Bob Delaporte, a spokesman for Sen. Alberta Darling, the committee's other co-chair, didn't immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

A message left with the Wisconsin chapter of AMVETS also wasn't immediately returned.

An August 2017 state audit found that the King home hasn't been able to keep nursing positions filled, leading to a dramatic increase in overtime and complaints. The audit followed a Capital Times newspaper published an investigation that revealed staff shortages, compromised care and a culture of retaliation at King.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee has twice voted to give members the power to approve transfers from the homes to the trust fund but Walker vetoed the move each time.

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