Emotional testimony: Supporters push for money to pay for veterans home in Butte

January 28, 2017

The Butte delegation and others on Friday pushed for the Legislature to approve a loan to build a long-awaited veterans home in southwest Montana that would serve the state’s many veterans.

Veteran John Thompson testifies in favor of funding the veterans home in Butte during a hearing Friday at the state Capitol in Helena.

Proponents overwhelmingly urged a subcommittee to help fund the projected $16.8-million project in bonds. The state has $5 million to commit to the nonpartisan project, but the federal government has not provided additional money as hoped because Montana is not on a high-priority list compared to other states.

“We have $5 million in the bank, but we need $10 million (of bonded money),” said Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte. “But we are losing more in construction inflation waiting to build the home. This is a simple formula.”

Sesso, Senate Minority Leader and one of the long-range planning committee members hearing testimony on House Bill 14, said Montana has been on the federal list since 2012.

“We’ve had this problem at the federal level, and we are getting leapfrogged by bigger states,” said Sesso. “More than 10 percent of Montanans are veterans — second in the nation per capita — but there are other states that have more vets.”

The state portion would come through a “bridge loan” to pay for construction that would be repaid once the federal money arrives.

The facility would be built on a 10-acre parcel of land near Continental Drive and the Interstate 90 interchange in Butte. Don Harrington donated the land. The other veterans homes in the state are in Columbia Falls, nearly a four-hour drive away, and Glendive, which is six hours away.

Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, urges the budget subcommittee Friday afternoon to approve the funding for a veterans home in Butte. “To heck with the thanks,” Keane said. “That isn’t going to (help) their mental problems or blown-off legs or other issues that they have or a place to live when they have no family.”

Vietnam veteran Tom Goyette said this may be the last chance for the Legislature to fund the facility, since it meets only every other year. Otherwise, under a 10-year agreement signed in 2009, the donated land will have to be returned to its original owner in 2019.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, was adamant about the committee completing the project after funding legislation has failed in previous sessions.

“What you’ve been doing now for two or three weeks is listening to the concerns of Montanans. The Legislature needs to step up now. We’ve come up with every excuse. But these are the needs of our state. Let’s fill those needs and stop putting it off.”

Most notably, veterans and legislators took to the mic to express their gratitude to all veterans of all ages and their service to U.S. wars across the board.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, a Vietnam vet and the father of a son in the Marine Corps, nearly broke down while testifying that the facility will serve a new, younger type of vet.

“We’ve been talking about this vets home since 2009. It will be designed for the new veteran who is only 20 years old. If we can find money for anything else, we certainly should be able to find money for veterans that we owe everything to,” said Ankney.

John Thompson, a veteran, was among several Butte-Silver Bow United Veterans Council reps who spoke.

“I don’t need this home,” he said. “I’m healthy, and I intend to stay that way. I served in Vietnam, and was never injured. But please support this bill.”

Melvin Kieninger, American Legion Post 448 commander in Butte, said the Legislature must pay back all veterans for serving our country.

Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, Senate Minority Leader, speaks at a hearing Friday on a bill that would help fund a veterans home in Butte.

“We have veterans serving in this Montana Legislature. Can you really look them in the eye and tell them their service does not count? If you turn it down, you’re telling them their service doesn’t count.”

Several women from the VFW auxiliary, Post 1448, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, including JoAnn Piazzola and Virginia Andrade, also spoke.

Molly Kirk of the United Veterans Council said, “It’s up to us to take care of these people.”

Pam Haxby-Cote, director of the Butte Local Development Corp., testified that if the facility is built in Butte it would improve the economy and long-term growth by creating immediate jobs.

“Taking care of our veterans here in our state where they deserve to be is the morally right thing to do,” added Haxby-Cote, nearly in tears. “From an economic standpoint, keeping them here and taking care of them here creates and sustains quality jobs.”

Projected cost of the facility originally was $13.9 million when the Butte delegation unveiled the idea to build in Butte.

“If we wait another three years, it will be that much more,” Sesso said, taking inflation into consideration. “So why not build it now and spend a little money on interest as opposed to (paying) more three years from now?”

Keane concluded the meeting with an emotional plea to legislators:

“Sorry — six years waiting tends to get an Irishman a little upset. I realize in HB14 we have lot of work to do now, but it’s your bill now. It isn’t a southwest Montana bill. It’s a Korean bill, a Vietnam bill. I expect this committee to do all the work that came before. You’ve been here for two weeks; most people have been waiting for years.”

Their testimony came on the final day of a two-week hearing by a legislative budget panel on a bill that would authorize $157 million in bonds for public works and building projects. The bonding bill is part of Gov. Steve Bullock’s $293-million infrastructure proposal, and the three projects covered Friday have been repeatedly rejected.

Sesso said the next step on HB14 will be a committee vote on Friday, Feb. 6.