Boone County Veteran Campaigns for More Veterans Home Beds

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JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's veterans' organizations are calling on state lawmakers to shorten a waiting list for spots at veterans homes, a line with more than 1,800 veterans in need of the nursing home care the facilities provide.

Missouri has seven veterans homes, including a 150 bed facility in Mexico. The system has 1,350 total beds statewide.

The veterans home system gets its funding from payments from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as an up to $2,000 per month fee charged to each resident.

The rest of the funding comes from proceeds from a dollar admission fee charged at the state's casinos. The casino fees go into a special fund called the Veterans Commission Capital Improvement Trust Fund, known to veterans as "the trust fund."

Boone County Vietnam Veteran Dewey Riehn tries to catch the ear of lawmakers on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Riehn told KOMU 8 News the state could shorten the waiting list if lawmakers "return the trust fund to the veterans."

Riehn said the trust fund has been used as a convenient pot of money in the last decade or so, and is not being used for its original purpose.

"The purpose of the trust fund as set forth was for capital improvements, which means new construction and major renovations," Riehn said.

In 1992, the state started putting the casino revenues into the trust fund. From 1992-1999, the state built three new veterans homes and five new veterans cemeteries.

In 1999, lawmakers started to direct some of the casino free profits into early childhood education. Lawmakers capped what the trust fund could receive each year at $3 million.

Riehn said he began to worry about the solvency of the trust fund.

"In 2011 it finally dawned on us that the trust fund was going to go broke," Riehn said.

In September 2011, Riehn and hundreds of veterans rallied at the Capitol, asking lawmakers to return the trust fund back to the veterans.

In the 2012 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to return most of the casino profits back to the trust fund. Riehn said veterans were happy because lawmakers had once again committed to using the casino money predominantly for veterans causes.

Riehn saw the 2012 legislation as a "catch 22" because lawmakers started stripping general revenue funds away from the Missouri Veterans Commission in the 2013 budget year. General revenue is the pot of money that comes from the states' income and sales tax collections.

In the 2013 and 2014 budget years, the veterans commission did not receive general revenue. Gov. Jay Nixon's 2015 budget proposal did not call for any general revenue spending on veterans.

Riehn said the veterans commission now has to use the trust fund money to cover operating expenses at the veterans homes, such as staff salaries.

The state is also experiencing a decline in gambling revenue, and Riehn said the state's reliance on gambling is troubling.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said the 2012 legislation was a good step and helped shore up veterans home funding. However, Kelly said it was a temporary fix and said lawmakers need to look at adding general revenue back to the veterans commission in the 2015 budget.

Riehn said Missouri's veterans organizations will rally at the Capitol on April 9. Veterans will ask lawmakers to use the trust fund exclusively for capital improvement projects, such as computerizing medical records at the homes.

Veterans will also ask lawmakers to appropriate $25 million in general revenue over the next few years to cover the operating expenses of the veterans commission.