AUGUSTA — A bill before the Legislature proposes using about $550,000 from the $46 million profit the state makes selling $144 million worth of alcohol each year to help Maine’s 140,000 veterans.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, offered the proposal Tuesday as part of an amendment that rolls together several recommendations from a special commission that was set up in 2015 to find ways to improve the state’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services.

Among other things, the legislation adds three veterans’ service officers to the bureau to help veterans find and receive the various programs and benefits to which they are entitled. One of those officers would focus on homeless veterans while the other two would be mobile positions designed to bring the bureau’s services to veterans where they live. At present, the state has seven positions that are based in offices in Maine’s largest cities.

The bill also requires the bureau to upgrade its record-keeping from a largely paper filing system to a computer-based case management system that would allow quicker access to veterans’ records and easier information sharing for veteran service officers and the various entities that attend to the needs of those being served.

The legislation provides full-time funding for an outreach specialist who is responsible for upgrading and modernizing the way the bureau reaches out to veterans in Maine.  

Of the state’s 140,000 veterans, an estimated 76,000 have never registered with the federal Veterans Administration, a key step for veterans who may be seeking medical help or other supports they could be eligible for under state and federal law.

Also in the measure are provisions that would allow nonprofit organizations that provide services to veterans, including Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts, to be exempt from charging sales tax on the goods and services they sell.

“This process, from the bill that created the commission to the work of the commission to the unanimous committee votes that reported out this legislation, has been bipartisan,” Golden said. “I’m proud of that and I really appreciate that, as well.  I hope we can continue that. I know we all want to do right by our veterans because we appreciate their service and we care about them.”

Golden, himself a Marine Corps combat veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was fortunate when he returned to civilian life in that he had family and friends who supported him and helped him find the services and supports that allowed him to pursue a higher education and good employment.

“But I’ve seen it play out at least a half-dozen different ways among the men that I served with, that unfortunately weren’t nearly as positive for them,” Golden said. “Some didn’t get the support they needed; some of them are dead now and they weren’t killed in combat. Self-medicating and substance abuse can become a coping mechanism for many veterans.”

Golden said that some veterans, without the right supports for higher education and work opportunities, “lose faith in themselves and that things will get better.”

“So that’s our job,” Golden said. “To do everything we can as a state to make sure our veterans get connected to the support systems that are out there for them. Veterans are just not wired very well for seeking out help until someone leads us to it. We’ve got a lot of pride and unfortunately, sometimes that makes it difficult to ask for help.”

But Republican lawmakers said they were surprised by the amendment Tuesday and wanted to pursue other possible funding mechanisms for the legislation.

“He wants to take money from the liquor fund to pay for this,” House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport said. “I don’t think that’s a good approach. I think there are other avenues to fund these projects that would be noncontroversial.”

Fredette said lawmakers should first look for “unused money” before going after a fund that was dedicated to specific expenses in the state budget. He said Golden should have asked the governor’s office for help in identifying possible funding sources.

“As we know, the governor’s wife is very supportive of veterans,” Fredette said. “I think that would be a very productive conversation to have. No one is suggesting they want to kill anything here, but what they really are just trying to suggest is how to be smart about how you do that.”

Fredette said Democrats didn’t bring up Golden’s proposal until Tuesday, noting that the amendment was 14 pages long.

“When they want to play ‘gotcha,’ this is when these things start to play emotional havoc with people — especially on an issue where we all support veterans,” Fredette said. “Let’s have an up-front conversation about it.” 

The legislation, as amended by Golden, would send money from the liquor contract to the Bureau of Veterans Services before it sends revenue to the state’s Department of Transportation, as is current law.

In 2015, the liquor fund provided $604,000 to MDOT’s infrastructure improvement fund, according to David Heidrich, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Administration and Financial Services.

The liquor fund was set up to pay off a loan the state borrowed in 2013 to pay down nearly $200 million in debt Maine owed the state’s 39 hospitals for Medicaid costs. In 2015, the liquor fund paid $15 million to service the debt on that loan, while sending another $9.7 million to the state’s General Fund with another $5.3 million of the fund going to clean water programs in the departments of Environmental Protection and Health and Human Services.

Heidrich said administration officials are concerned about Golden’s proposal, noting it could damage the state’s credit rating and would suggest a revenue stream that was primarily meant to pay down debt could be used arbitrarily for other purposes.

“The purpose of the (liquor fund) statute is to ensure Maine repays hospital revenue bond; everything else is extra,” Heidrich wrote in an email to the Sun Journal. “The spirits cascade allows Maine to make important infrastructure investments (clean water, drinking water, transportation) without having to borrow money for them. Rep. Golden’s amendment attempts to utilize spirits cascade for ongoing, dissimilar costs.” 

Also in play is legislation that would allow members of the Maine National Guard and Air National Guard to attend University of Maine classes tuition-free. And while University of Maine System officials say they can absorb the expense, Democrats have said they want to guarantee funding for that is in place long-term.

With every seat in the Legislature up for election in November, also in play are election-year politics, as both Republican and Democratic leaders jockey their caucuses into positions that appear supportive of veterans.

Democrats on the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee also unveiled a list of funding priorities for 2016 which included ways to fund both the bills supported by Golden, as well as the National Guard tuition legislation. That proposal would also use liquor fund revenue starting in 2017 to fund the new staff and technology upgrades for the Bureau of Veterans’ Services.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the House chairwoman of the committee, said the list was a “starting point” for an in-depth conversation about the state’s spending priorities between budget cycles. 

“We want an ongoing source of funding for this,” Rotundo said. “We don’t want to treat National Guard members like second-class citizens, where they get one year of free tuition and then they don’t have money beyond one year.”

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