Veterans' groups seek lottery payout
By PETER HIRSCHFELD Vermont Press Bureau | March 13,2010
MONTPELIER – Veterans' organizations are looking to take a gamble as they seek a steady funding stream for the services they provide to retired servicemen across Vermont.
Proposed legislation in the Vermont House would direct the Vermont Lottery to create special, instant scratch-off tickets, with proceeds going into a new "Veterans Fund." The three new games called for in the bill could raise in the range of half a million dollars annually.
"I think it's important to understand there are so many programs out there for veterans that we need help with. And with the state now in the financial shape it is in, it can't do that," said John Miner, president of the Vermont chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. "This has united all veterans' groups together because they're all behind this bill."
The bill would establish a new Veterans Fund into which state lottery proceeds would flow. A five-person committee overseeing the money would distribute grants to organizations that assist Vermont veterans.
Miner said the lottery proceeds would be a boon to organizations like the Veterans Place in Northfield and the Dodge House in Rutland, which serve as transitional homes for at-risk veterans looking to improve their lives. The money could also fund service officers, deployed by organizations like Vietnam Veterans of America, who help connect veterans with state and federal benefits.
As it stands, Miner said, those groups struggle to piece together one-time appropriations and grants to maintain programs. Last year, the Vietnam Veterans of America's $5,000 state appropriation was cut due to budget constraints.
"It hurt," Miner said. "It hurt bad."
Miner is also vice president of the Governor's Veterans Advisory Council and said that body had endorsed the legislation. A steady stream of revenue, he said, would ensure the long-term viability of existing programs and likely sprout new efforts.
But lawmakers and other officials are worried that the new veterans' tickets might eat into lottery proceeds that provide about $21 million annually to the Vermont Education Fund. Money spent on scratch-off tickets for veterans, according to Steve Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, could cannibalize revenue from the Education Fund.
"We're concerned the bill as proposed will divert lottery proceeds to other uses," Jeffrey told lawmakers this week. "Not that we have anything against veterans, but it is an alternative use to the Education Fund that is going to mean more property taxes."
Jeffrey also worries about the precedent a special lottery game might establish.
"If this is passed this will be the first of many very well-intentioned causes … for which you could be creating scratch-off ticket programs," Jeffrey said. "We'd just as soon not get started if we could avoid it."
Clayton Clark, director of the Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs, said his office has no position on the creation of a niche lottery game. However he said he does support the creation of a Veterans Fund. The current funding system, he said, forces his office to compete against service organizations for the same state appropriations.
"We many times are competitors with these private organizations. With the budget reductions, we've been forced to recommend reductions in payments to private organizations," Clark said. "One of the fellows said I'm 'cutting his throat' – those were the exact words he used."
With a Veterans Fund, Clark said, the Office of Veterans Affairs could keep its revenue separate from other veteran-oriented appropriations, and improve the office's relationship with those groups.
The House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs doesn't look poised to pass the bill. Many members echoed Jeffery's concerns about lost education revenue.
But chairwoman Helen Head, a South Burlington Democrat, said she wants to use the proposal as occasion to discuss new ways to fund veterans programs. She said a check-off box on income-tax forms – like the ones that now allow residents to make voluntary donations toward a wildlife fund and children's trust – might hold promise.