Lawmakers seek oversight of veterans trust fund

May 12, 2017 GMT

The Legislature’s budget committee called Thursday for more legislative oversight of the Wisconsin veterans trust fund after an audit showed $55 million was transferred to the fund from the veterans home at King while $20 million worth of maintenance needs were delayed.

The Joint Finance Committee unanimously supported the move, which would require the department to notify the committee of a fund transfer and allow members to object within 14 days, prompting a vote by the full committee.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, committee co-chairwoman, said she supported the additional oversight because “it’s important to our vets to make sure that the transfers are valid and are transparent.”

Gov. Scott Walker vetoed a similar provision in the 2013-15 budget. Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said there are no assurances from Walker that he won’t veto the provision again.

“I’m on the Governor Walker team, but I don’t know we should ever make our decisions based on whether he’s going to veto something or not,” Nygren said.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson declined to comment on Walker’s veto plans.

The trust fund supports programs that support veterans in the state.

It relies on annual transfers of funding from the state veterans homes because of declining revenue, which comes from a combination of federal funds, loan repayments and sales of goods and services. As recently as 2014, the state contributed general tax dollars to the fund.

Over the next two years the state is projecting $13 million will be needed in transfers each year from the state-run veterans nursing homes to keep the trust fund solvent. The King veterans home generates about $11 million in surplus funds each year and has a $35 million surplus, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Democrats called for transferring $26 million from general fund taxes instead, but the proposal was rejected.

Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said the state shouldn’t be raiding funds from the state veterans homes when the audit and news reports have shown there have been reduced services, strains on employees and water quality problems at the King veterans home. Patient care quality problems have resulted in some of the facilities losing their five-star ratings over the past year.

“We should make sure we’re utilizing some of the money that is there for veterans in the home before we start transferring $26 million to support the veterans trust fund,” Hintz said.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said the transfer from the veterans home fund wasn’t a raid.

“What (veterans) like getting more than praise themselves is helping other veterans,” said Kooyenga, a veteran of the Iraq War.

A Legislative Audit Bureau review of the King home’s finances released on Friday showed between 2003 and 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs took $55 million from King, which generates more revenue than it spends, and spent that money elsewhere while $20 million of needed upgrades and projects at King went uncompleted.

The budget committee also eliminated Walker’s proposal to create a new liaison position for the Department of Veterans Affairs to county veteran service offices.

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said the position would limit the ability of the Wisconsin County Veterans Service Officer Association to communicate with different departments and was unnecessary.