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July 2, 2015

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State Budget:

Budget cuts hurt state’s ability to help returning veterans

Parades and praise for veterans last weekend were one thing, but Nevada has struggled to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan access federal benefits.

Years of budget cuts have resulted in a two-month wait for veterans to see a state liaison for help with applying for federal education, housing, health care and pension benefits — a delay that the Nevada Office of Veterans Services called “inexcusable,” according to an agency memo written last month.

With more than 100 Nevada veterans on a waiting list to see a veterans services officer, the state “is unable to keep abreast of the needs of Nevada veterans and their families,” Katherine Miller, deputy director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services, told a legislative committee last month.

Lawmakers approved adding two positions to try to lower the wait time last month. But they also said the current eight-week wait in Las Vegas is the result of a state budget that has been stretched too thin for four years.

In 2011, the Legislature approved Gov. Brian Sandoval’s recommendation to eliminate two veterans services representatives and an administrative assistant position in the agency’s Las Vegas office. The agency’s budget was cut by 7 percent overall, to just over $5 million over the two-year budget period, according to the state appropriations report.

Lawmakers said the inability of the agency to serve returning veterans is what they predicted would happen.

"This is the perfect example of the real-life fallout of budget cuts and how it impacts real people every day,” said Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

A 2007 executive branch audit recommended that the state add four veterans services officers as part of a decades-long effort to help Nevada veterans access federal benefits. Each state services officer helps bring in an average of $5.2 million a year in benefits for veterans.

But while the state Legislature approved two positions in Elko County, it did not approve two positions requested in Clark County in 2009.

And again, in 2011, the agency passed on a chance to request funding for more positions.

“It was not reasonable to pursue additional budget positions in 2011,” said Caleb Cage, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services. “We knew we had to cut positions.”

Cage said that federal backlog to handle claims is about a year.

“Adding an additional eight-week wait to the front end is entirely too long,” Cage said. He added that it “had been that way for months.”

Now, seven veteran services officers in the state, not counting the new positions approved last month, serve an estimated 300,000 veterans living in Nevada.

Sandoval was traveling Wednesday and was not available for comment. Spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said that Sandoval supported the request for additional positions. But she would not address why his budget in 2011 recommended those cuts.

“The governor is grateful for the service of our veterans and will continue to work to support them as they transition to civilian life,” Kinner said.

The Nevada Office of Veterans Services has, like other government agencies in Nevada, struggled during the recession to keep up with demand for services.

Smith, who was chairwoman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee in 2011, acknowledged that the Legislature could have added positions.

“(But) at that point, we had no money to add anything back,” she said.

The delay veterans would experience “seemed like an absurdly long time, but if we add that back, do we cut services for kids with autism? We were in the middle of that whole problem. We were hurting people in a variety of areas,” Smith said.

Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, D-Las Vegas, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said the cut was unacceptable.

“I’m concerned about people coming home from war who need to be connected to services,” Anderson said.

The cut, he said, “didn't make a lot of sense then. It doesn’t make a lot of sense now.”

The two additional positions approved by the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee will be included in Sandoval’s budget going forward, according to the state budget director.

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