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VETERAN-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS Congressional Updates Both the House of Representatives and Senate were in session this week. With less than eight months remaining in this Second Session of the 112th Congress, the timetable for action on many issues should accelerate. The Obama Administration released his fiscal year 2013 budget this past Monday, February 13, one week later than normal. The Legislative Division will spend the coming weeks analyzing the budget, determining its likely impact on national security and veterans’ programs. House VA Committee Hearings Examine Proposed VA Budget On Wednesday, February 15 the full House Committee on Veterans Affairs met to receive the President’s proposed fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). One panel consisted of representatives of multiple veterans’ groups who produce the Independent Budget (IB) as well as Legislative Director Tim Tetz of The American Legion. Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (FL) initiated the hearing by voicing his deep and continued concern that VA’s budget is not protected from the threat of sequestration, mandatory deep budget cuts triggered under the Budget Control Act by the failure of the congressional Supercommittee to reach agreement on sweeping cuts to the budget last fall. Despite repeated requests for clarification from the committee to both VA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), there remains a question as to whether VA will be subject to a mandatory two percent budget cut under the rules of sequestration. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was still unable to provide a clear answer on this topic. Further comment from the committee commended VA for a twelve percent increased overall budget, yet raised questions as to whether enough funds were available to achieve necessary improvements in operations for VA health care as well as the disability benefits system. One issue was a proposed billion dollar plan to establish a Veterans Job Corps to provide 20,000 new jobs for veterans working outdoors to improve the nation’s parks and public lands. VA officials could not provide details of the plan, instead only hinted these details were “coming” and that the program would be more fully explained at a later date. Director Tetz spoke at the conclusion of the final panel, applauding VA’s presentation but questioning whether it was truly a beneficial budget to veterans or in reality a “house of cards” of empty gimmicks that brought little real increases to the needed budgets. Criticizing shortfalls in funding of VA’s construction budgets, Director Tetz noted, “If VA follows the recommendations of their own Strategic Capital Investment Plan for the next ten years, but only funds the construction at the proposed levels, it will take 50 years to complete their ten year plan.” Breaking down several of the problems inherent in the proposed budget, Tetz noted, “If you take the proposed 12 percent increase in budget, subtract nearly $10 billion in mandatory funds which went up only as a result of the cost-of-living increases for veteran disabilities, gains bought only with the blood and tears of veterans, then take out the $1 billion for the Job Corps which requires Congress to pass new laws to enact, and take out the proposed increase in the Medical Collection Accounts that have not even been authorized at the proposed levels, you’re left with a budget increase just under two percent.” Tetz further closed the circle of the hearing by bringing the conversation back to Chairman Miller’s initial salvo. “That two percent will disappear if VA is not exempt from sequestration.” A subsequent, follow up hearing by the Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) conducted Thursday the 16th delved into more detail on the budgets of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) as well as the veterans’ court. The subsequent hearing largely focused on concerns arising from a national audit being conducted by NCA to ensure tombstone realignment conducted by contractors at over 90 national cemeteries was conducted to standards. There had been problems arising at Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas, triggering a much larger nationwide investigation. Director Steve Muro of NCA assured Congress that their investigation of the nation’s cemeteries was extensive and measures were in place to ensure none of the outside contracting would have provided anything less than the 98 percent satisfaction rating NCA is known for. LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS Letters of Support On February 10, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Steve Stivers (OH), thanking him for developing draft legislation entitled “Helping Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Return to Employment at Home Act or HIRE at HOME Act.” This bill would require states to align their certification processes to take into account the training received by transitioning military members seeking certification or licensure as a state-tested nursing assistant, a certified nursing assistant, a registered nurse, or a commercial driver. A large portion of military training can be directly converted into skills necessary for some civilian jobs. This measure would require states to alter this procedure and to take this training into account. If the states fail to do so, they risk losing certain federal funding. Rep. Stivers hopes to formally introduce the legislation in the coming days. On February 13, our organization sent a letter to Sen. Olympia Snowe (ME), thanking her for introducing S. 2084, which requires states, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Transportation, to “…establish accelerated licensing procedures to assist veterans to acquire commercial driver’s licenses.” This measure is similar to the draft legislation of Rep. Stivers mentioned above.