Access to funds for veteran cemetery system sought

The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony Jan. 20 on a bill that would allow funds from the Veterans’ Aid Income Fund to be used for the state veteran cemetery system.

Under LB116, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, the director would be allowed to use the fund for the administration, maintenance and operation of cemeteries in the state veteran cemetery system.

Avery said the proposal is meant to provide flexibility to the Appropriations Committee as they attempt to deal with the state’s projected budget shortfall.

There may be times when funds appropriated by the Legislature will cover the estimated $280,000 annual cost to run the cemetery system, he said, but LB116 will allow transfers if the need arises. As such, the bill does not authorize the transfer of a specific dollar amount.

The Veterans’ Aid Income Fund was established in 1921 to aid World War I veterans with short-term, unexpected expenses, Avery said, and has a current value of approximately $31.5 million. The fund generates over $1 million in interest per year, he said, not all of which is needed to cover veterans’ requests for assistance.

“I think in every way [LB116] is consistent with the original intent of the fund,” Avery said. “In these extraordinary budget times we need flexibility in how we spend our money.”

Veteran Johnny Austin testified in support of the bill, saying not all veterans can be buried in the National Cemetery and that the Nebraska veterans’ cemeteries should be given the money needed to operate.

“I think it’s a necessary thing,” he said.

Opponents of the bill included John Hilgert, director of the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs, who said the volume of future requests from veterans for aid is difficult to predict.

Any excess interest should continue to be reinvested to keep the fund sound, Hilgert said, adding that amounts above what are needed for reinvestment currently are used to increase the dollar amount paid for a given situation.

“Fund money has never been diverted for any expense except for direct benefit aid to vets,” he said.

Don Shuda, a county veterans service officer, also opposed the bill, saying the cost of aiding veterans would fall to county government should the state fund be depleted.

“Veterans, by state statute, have a right to expect services,” Shuda said. “This would cause an unfunded mandate back to the counties.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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