Knowing full well that the governor is looking to trim back hundreds of millions of dollars in next year’s state budget, the Department of Veterans Affairs is asking for a spending increase.
Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder said the department’s $4.8 million annual state budget would struggle to withstand the 5 percent budget cut Gov. Bill Haslam is requesting of all departments at a time when the agency is already working with a small staff and struggling to ensure veterans don’t miss out on benefits.
“Many of our veterans have physical scars. Some battle demons within. And we have veterans’ widows who are living in poverty here in Tennessee. Many of them are just not aware of what they may be entitled to,” she told the governor during a budget hearing in Knoxville last week.
“Some of this is because the laws are complicated and they change. Some of it is because it’s just confusing. Some of our customers, some of the red tape involved would mean that their claim would never get approved so they don’t even try,” she said.
The department’s spending now amounts to about $2.50 on each of the the half-million veterans, 1.5 million dependants and survivors of veterans and 16,000 reserve units it serves. Last year, the agency helped Tennessee veterans collect $820 million in federal entitlements to put back into the economy, according to Grinder.
The department would cut $238,500 if forced to cut 5 percent from its state-funded budget by reducing staff and travel, she told the governor, adding “we feel the impact of every single dollar.”
Instead, Grinder is asking the governor for a $158,000 increase for staffing employees, including retaining one now-vacant benefits representative position, hiring two traveling veterans benefits reps, and reverting one position to a permanently-funded job.
Haslam wouldn’t tip his hand about whether expanding the agency’s budget is in the cards this year, saying only, “We understand all you’re doing with not a whole lot of dollars, and we’re very, very grateful for it.”
The governor is expected to offer a roughly $30 billion budget plan early next year after he devises a plan that cuts the state budget by as much as $400 million to make up for rising costs in education and TennCare that are estimated to exceed the growth in state revenues.