February 24, 1995 in Idaho

Legislators May Start War With Vets Committee Cuts Veterans Services Administrator Position To Save $92,000 In Agency’s Budget

Bob Fick Associated Press

Pressing ahead with their campaign to check the growth of the state government labor force, legislative budget writers on Thursday eliminated the job of the Veterans Services administrator.

In picking what many predict will be a major fight with veterans organizations, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted 11-9 to keep the agency in business but without longtime administrator Gary Bermeosolo.

The move would save $92,000 in the agency’s $2.7 million general tax budget.

Eliminating the job has raised some questions since it is specifically authorized by state law. But it was the only possible way Bermeosolo, who staged an unsuccessful 1976 challenge to Republican State Sen. James Risch, could be terminated without the consent of the Veterans Affairs Commission.

The committee also voted to eliminate the Commission on Alcohol and Substance Abuse and its director, former Democratic state Sen. Mike Black, saving about $100,000.

But it gave a reprieve to the Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, authorizing its $92,000 budget for another year and keeping Director Pennie Cooper on the payroll.

Council supporters had lobbied members of the House-Senate panel intensely, as had representatives of the sheltered workshops for the handicapped. That also paid off as the committee voted 15-5 to add over $60,000 to that Health and Welfare Department budget to cover inflationary costs.

Only one other agency, the Human Rights Commission, has won additional cash for inflationary expenses from budget writers.

Bermeosolo, popular with veterans groups and an advocate on veterans issues, has run the agency through its expansion from the veterans home in Boise to a second in Pocatello and finally the newest one in Lewiston.

“Each hospital has an administrator, and this position simply travels between them,” Republican Rep. Maxine Bell of Jerome said.

She said there was also renewed interest in relocating the agency from the Health and Welfare Department to the Military Division, which would preclude the need for an administrator. But legislation to do that has not even been drafted yet and there is only a month and probably less left in the session.

Batt had recommended elimination of both the Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse and the Council on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Budget Director Dean Van Engelen maintained small agencies like those become advocates for special interests - something taxpayers should not finance.

But the committee’s action on Veterans Services came as a surprise to key legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Phil Batt, who campaigned for leaner, more efficient government. Batt spokeswoman Amy Kleiner said the governor had not urged the move and had no immediate reaction.

But in his budget address on Jan. 11, Batt emphasized that his spending blueprint included a net increase of just 16 full-time employees, and to applauding lawmakers he said, “Together, maybe we can find another 16 positions that can be eliminated.”

Although the budget committee has strayed occasionally from Batt’s bare-bones budget blueprint, since it began fashioning the $1.35 billion general tax budget two weeks ago, it has cut that net increase of 16 down to less than 10.

The committee also followed Batt’s recommendation to cut 13 jobs from the Indirect Support Services Division in the Health and Welfare Department. But members exceeded Batt’s spending recommendation for the Commission on the Arts by more than $60,000.

The additional money will be used for arts grants to local communities and to bring live theater, dance and music to isolated rural schools.

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