Bill aiming to reshuffle veterans services in N.H. gets a public hearing

  • State Rep. Al Baldasaro speaks during a town hall listening session with Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 1/23/2018 7:45:25 PM

An effort to reshape how the state handles its military and veterans services is being closely watched by veterans and state advisory bodies alike.

The bill would dissolve the State Office of Veterans Services and the State Veterans Advisory Council and establish in its place a department of military and veterans services, according to the text of House Bill 636.

The bill would also establish a state veterans advisory committee, made up of two members of the House of Representatives, two members of the Senate, and 20 representatives of veterans organizations in the state of New Hampshire.

State Rep. Russell Ober of Hudson, the bill’s prime sponsor, said during a Tuesday public hearing that the department’s goal would be to better coordinate the various agencies – both state-run and independent – that provide services to veterans. Those agencies are scattered around the state, he said, which can make it difficult for veterans and their families to know what services are available.

The cost of creating the department is currently unknown; members of the Executive Departments and Administration Committee voted Tuesday to request a fiscal note be generated before moving forward during a public hearing Tuesday afternoon.

Money, Ober said, was not a concern – should the bill pass, any staff that currently works with the Office of Veterans Services would be absorbed into the new department. Only one new commissioner position would be created, he said.

“Most of the money involved here is already being spent on various veterans projects that would be wrapped up into this,” he said. “It annoys me that people ask how you would pay for this. ... I ask, ‘What about the veterans here that aren’t getting what they need?’ That’s more important than if we have to move money around.”

The commissioner would be appointed by the governor and serve four-year terms as a liaison between the federal government and the governor on issues relevant to the department’s mission. He or she would also serve as a “one-stop shop” for veterans and their family members looking for services.

The position’s requirements currently include experience with active service in the Vietnam War or any conflict afterward, an honorable discharge, and at least two years of New Hampshire residency.

Ober, a Vietnam veteran, said having a veteran who has seen combat is his preference, but is not vital.

“I spent a lot of time being shot at in Vietnam,” he said. “Someone who has been shot at probably has a better idea of what veterans are going through.”

But while those in attendance seemed to agree that the current service model needs work, some said creating a new department wasn’t the way to go.

Rep. John Graham of Bedford, the deputy majority leader, said the House majority is in opposition to the bill as it’s currently written. He said it’s unclear how the much the bill would cost and that many of the department’s goals could be accomplished with existing personnel. He was concerned about dissolving the state advisory committee, which advises the governor on veterans issues in the state.

However, he said, House Speak Gene Chandler said House leadership believes in the bill’s concept – it just needs work.

And Rep. Brandon Phinney of Rochester, who is still an active member of the state’s National Guard, said having a single entity managing services could create a one-size-fits-all method of handling veterans. He also said that the requirements for commissioner were too limited in scope and would exclude some of the state’s veteran population.

“I’m concerned the creation of a new agency is only going to pertain to the retired portion of our community,” he said.

But Rep. Al Baldasaro of Londonderry, a co-sponsor of the bill, pushed back against those claims, saying that not having a “one-stop shop” for services hurts the state’s veterans.

“When someone tells you we don’t have a problem in the state, where we have the eighth largest per-capita population of veterans in the country, they’re lying to you,” he said.

According to minutes from the New Hampshire Veterans Home Board of Managers, the state’s VFW and American Legion do not support the bill. The State Veterans Advisory Council has voted to closely watch the bill, according to President Kevin Grady.

HB 636 would take effect July 1, if approved.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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