Lawmakers want VA to pressure state on veterans homes

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 21, 2011 

WASHINGTON — California lawmakers are now trying to use federal dollars as leverage to open long-stalled veterans' homes in Fresno and Redding.

In a lobbying bank shot, House members want Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to pressure California about opening the Central Valley homes. Shinseki certainly has clout, if he chooses to use it.

"The federal government pays a large share of the funding," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, noted Tuesday. "The federal government has always been a partner in the expansion of these veterans' homes."

For both the Fresno and Redding homes, the VA has authorized grants to cover nearly two-thirds of the construction costs. The money has not yet been paid.

Costa and a sometime political rival, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, are jointly urging Shinseki to use the pending grant funding to ensure the Fresno veterans home opens sooner rather than later. Separately, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, has been weighing in, while Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, is likely to do the same on behalf of the Redding home.

"We've got a promise to our veterans," said Denham, who formerly chaired the state Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "I think it's foolish to delay the openings."

The congressmen are conducting their pressure campaign through letters, staff contacts and personal conversations. It's a politically unassailable move, as they align themselves with local veterans. The ultimate decision-making, though, may rest more in Sacramento than in Washington, D.C.

"We will work with the state to determine when the Fresno and Redding homes will open after construction is complete," the VA declared in a statement Wednesday.

Under a new California budget-cutting bill, the Fresno and Redding veterans' homes will postpone their scheduled openings until at least January 2013. After many previous delays, the homes were supposed to open in about July 2012.

"I want you to know I will be up here inspecting and making sure there will be a veterans' home here and the doors will be open," then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the Redding groundbreaking on May 21, 2010.

The Fresno groundbreaking was held the same week.

The 300-bed home in southwest Fresno and the 150-bed home in Redding belong to the California Department of Veterans Affairs. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs, though, has offered to reimburse the state for nearly two-thirds of the total construction cost. The Fresno grant amounts to $91.8 million, and the Redding grant amounts to $50.2 million.

Here's the clout, and the catch.

A memorandum of agreement signed by a California official last March committed the state to "provide adequate financial support to operate and maintain" the Fresno home. The agreement further committed the state, once the home is complete, to "open at least eight beds per month" until the facility is full.

A similar agreement was signed concerning the Redding home.

The Central Valley lawmakers reason that this agreement obliges California to proceed with opening the homes. They believe the unpaid money gives the federal government leverage to convince the state to do so.

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs still has not signed the Fresno agreement. Even before the state funding shortfall forced opening delays, moreover, federal officials worried that staffing levels were too low in the California veterans' homes.

Costa suggested that officials could revise the reimbursement agreements, if necessary, while Denham stressed the bargaining power the federal government enjoys by virtue of having money the state needs.

"It would be unconscionable to complete the facility and then mothball it until we find a way to open it up," Costa said.

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