Missouri's veterans seeking to recoup education funds

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In what is becoming an increasingly common dilemma, lawmakers face a difficult question on which of two groups most need revenue from casino entrance fees -- military veterans or preschoolers.

When the riverboat gambling industry started in Missouri in the early 1990s, most of the state's take from boarding fees was earmarked for veterans programs. At the behest of then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, the law was changed in 1998 to divert most of that revenue stream to create new early childhood education programs.

But now the trust fund that helps pay for facilities such as the Cape Girardeau Veterans Home and new Bloomfield State Veterans Cemetery could go broke as early as 2005. As a result, veterans groups want more of the fee revenue directed back to the trust fund.

"Veterans are interested in maintaining the solvency of the fund to maintain homes and cemeteries," Dewey Reihn of the Missouri Veterans of Foreign Wars told a House committee on Tuesday.

Children's advocates, however, say that the $27 million currently set aside for early childhood programs is already insufficient for their needs.

"We are concerned taking any more from that would jeopardize some programs we already have in place," said Candace Iveson of Citizens for Missouri's Children.

Both groups are adamant they aren't trying to hurt the other but to address pressing needs.

At issue was a bill heard by the House Tax Policy Committee that would boost the veterans' trust fund take from boarding fees from $3 million to $7 million a year. It would also increase the money set aside for a Missouri National Guard college scholarship fund from $3 million to $4.5 million.

Standing in line

Funding for preschool programs would remain unchanged, assuming sufficient funds were available. However, those programs would be last in line behind veterans and scholarship funding.

Any extra money from the fees would be divided evenly between the three groups.

When the law was changed in 1998, the veterans fund collected roughly $30 million a year from the fees.

Reihn, who spoke for a coalition of the state's major veterans groups, said veterans agreed to share the revenue with early childhood programs when asked to do so by Carnahan. However, Reihn said they thought it was going to be a 50-50 split and were caught by surprise when it turned out to be a $3 million cap.

Ron Taylor, executive director of the Missouri Veterans Commission, said the trust fund's current $42 million balance will drop to $34 million by the end of the fiscal year on June 30. With new facilities set to open in the coming years and further demands on the commission's resources, Taylor said the fund will be depleted by the end of 2005.

State Rep. Mike Sager, D-Lee's Summit, said he was sympathetic to the problem but suggested veterans groups find alternative solutions.

"I'm very concerned we get veterans fully funded but also that we don't take it away from education," Sager said.

However, state Rep. Shannon Cooper, R-Clinton, admonished education supporters for their apparent unwillingness to share.

"Due to the generosity of veterans you have these programs. Now you begrudge them getting back some funds," said Cooper, the committee chairman.

Iveson said that wasn't the case and that the needs of veterans are legitimate.

"I caution that we not continue to pit vulnerable groups against each other in the state budget," Iveson said.

State Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, said he is struggling with the issue but appeared to indicate keeping the veterans fund afloat was the more pressing issue.

"It is a choice between insolvency in the short term on one hand versus not expanding programs," Lipke said.

The bill is HB 444.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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