AUGUSTA — Politicians from both political parties have vowed to find state funding for a federal program that sends an honors detail to about 1,300 military funerals per year in Maine.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Monday vowed to find funding within the state budget to ensure the program continues, and Democratic Sen. John Tuttle of Sanford followed suit Tuesday by proposing to protect the program.
LePage blamed federal budget cuts for endangering the practice. Tuttle will submit his bill to the next Legislature if he wins re-election next month.
The Maine Funeral Honors Program was created in 2003 to send honor guards to the funerals of Army veterans from Maine, and since then, honor guards have appeared at more than 10,000 funerals of Maine veterans, including 1,300 appearances in 2013 alone. In addition to providing a military honors presence, the group typically plays Taps and presents an American flag to the family or loved ones of the deceased veteran.
Capt. Norman Stickney, spokesman for the Maine National Guard, said the program’s funding is safe at current levels until December when a continuing resolution on the federal budget expires. However, the program is in line for a 58 percent cut in a budget bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Stickney said that while the Maine National Guard and its parent organizations are still evaluating how the cut would affect the program, it’s possible that it could lead to layoffs for some of the five full-time personnel who run the program and reassignment for some of the personnel who actually perform the ceremonies.
“At this point, the funeral honors program is going to continue to train at previous levels and continue to support every funeral that they possibly can,” said Stickney. “They’re going to continue through the first quarter of the [federal] fiscal year [which began on Oct. 1] as normal so no veteran is without their entitled funeral honors service.”
If the cuts go through, according to Stickney, personnel from the National Guard’s Casualty Assistance Center in Fort Drum, New York, which serves all of New England and the state of New York, will be assigned to cover Army veteran funerals in Maine.
Stickney was unable to say what the overall budget for the program is or what a 58-percent cut represents in actual dollars because it is supported by multiple appropriations from several sources. He said, on average, it costs the Maine National Guard about $100 to send a detail to a funeral.
Dan Rafter, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, Maine’s 2nd District U.S. House representative and the Democratic candidate for governor, said Michaud has requested fiscal information about and justification for the proposal from the U.S. Army Budget Office, but he has not heard a response.
“We’ve reached out to the Army Budget Office to get more specific information about the proposal and to register our serious concerns about any such cuts,” said Rafter in response to questions from the BDN. “We don’t have any more information back from them at this point.”
In an Oct. 1 letter to Michaud and the three other members of Maine’s congressional delegation, LePage said he would find money within the executive branch to protect the program.
“I urge you to work to restore federal funding so that the federal government may maintain our commitments to our veterans,” said LePage. “In the interim, I have instructed relevant state officials to ensure that no honor ceremony request is denied and to find the necessary funding and resources to make up this shameful shortfall.”
LePage said in the letter that he would issue an executive order to that effect. Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, said in an email to the BDN that the executive branch does not have “exact figures” for how much covering the shortfall would cost.
Tuttle on Tuesday announced that he had filed a concept bill to provide state funding for the federal program. His measure would be considered when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2015.
“The ceremonial paying of respects is the very least we can do as a country to demonstrate our enormous gratitude to the men and women who have valiantly fought and died for our country,” said Tuttle in a written statement.
LePage issued a news release about his Oct. 1 letter to the delegation on Monday, the same day Michaud, who is opposes LePage in the three-way race for the gubernatorial election, unveiled a plan targeted at improving care for Maine veterans.
Michaud campaign spokesman Lizzy Reinholt on Tuesday criticized the timing of LePage’s news release and said it was an attempt to score political points with voters on an issue on which virtually everyone agrees, regardless of party.
Reinholt criticized LePage for not addressing criticisms fired at him by Democrats — including his handling of the economy and Riverview Psychiatric Center. “Then he rolls out a press release about a niche issue that everyone’s going to agree about just to get coverage,” she said.
LePage campaign spokesman Alex Willette said Tuesday that this is another way that Michaud has let veterans down as chairman and then ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.