Thursday, April 28, 2011

DAV Testimony at Today’s Legislative Hearing on AB 96

Testimony of the Disabled American Veterans Department of Wisconsin

Presented to the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Veterans’ and Military Affairs

By Anthony Hardie, DAV State Special Assistant

April 28, 2011

Chairman Spanbauer, Ranking Member Milroy, and members of the Assembly Committee on Veterans’ and Military Affairs:

On behalf of Disabled American Veterans state commander John Hoeft, DAV’s governing Executive Committee, and DAV’s entire state leadership team, thank you for this opportunity to testify in support of AB 96 with amendments requested by DAV to strengthen the bill. And a special thank you to Representative Kevin Petersen, his staff, and all those involved in drafting and co-authoring this important legislation whose time has truly come.

For the record, DAV is the largest organization of service-disabled veterans in the world. Made up of well over one million men and women disabled in our nation’s defense, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) is dedicated to a single purpose: building better lives for all of our nation’s disabled veterans and their families. Fully non-partisan, DAV extends its mission of hope into communities where these veterans and their families live through a network of direct assistance-providing national service offices, an extensive DAV van program to get veterans to their often distant VA medical appointments, state-level departments, and 2,400 local chapters, including 55 here in Wisconsin.

For those who don’t already know me, I’m Anthony Hardie, a service-disabled veteran of the Gulf War and Somalia and a DAV life member since 1997. I’m also an unpaid volunteer with DAV and honored to serve in national and state roles in support of DAV’s mission of helping other disabled veterans. And, most recently, I’m formerly the number three top official at WDVA from 2003 to 2009 under two Secretaries, a number of Acting Secretaries, and Boards of Veterans Affairs dominated by political appointees of both parties.

I’m pleased to be accompanied today by service-disabled Vietnam War veteran Al Labelle of Stevens Point, and all other DAV leaders and members present.

Like most other large organizations, DAV-Wisconsin’s positions are not determined at the whim of one or even just a couple individuals. Instead, DAV’s positions are determined by a leadership team of elected and appointed DAV officers and staff and then reviewed and accepted, rejected or modified by DAV’s governing executive committee elected by the body of DAV. My testimony before you today is no exception, with the core set of these issues having been considered not just once, but twice by DAV’s governing Executive Committee, the first time long before AB 96 was ever even drafted or circulated for co-sponsorship.

Head of Agency/Role of Board. First, DAV is in support of the most important aspect of AB 96 – restructuring the leadership of the agency so that the WDVA Secretary is appointed by the Governor to serve as the head of the agency, with the role of the Board of Veterans Affairs modified to serve in a purely advisory role.

It has become clear over the last many years that insulating WDVA and other agencies from politics, the principle goal of the Progressive movement with regards to citizen boards as agency heads, has been a failure. In fact, as stated in DAV’s press release today, at least in the case of WDVA, these Boards have not only kept partisan politics from affecting the agency, but have simply prolonged the politics of the last Governor, often for several years. In the case of the most recent Board power transition, Governor Doyle’s political appointees to the Board of Veterans Affairs were not in the majority until several years into his term, and only really were able to exercise that majority power in his second term.

Dick Marbes is a past DAV National Commander and continuing key leader in DAV’s national and state organizations, who served on the WDVA Board for ten years, from 1991 to 2001, says he served with many other Board members who he respects, including Teddy Duckworth from the American Legion. However, as a former Board member himself, he says it’s clear to him that accountability over a Secretary and an agency by a very part-time Board of Veterans Affairs is simply not possible and can easily lead to the disjointed results we all have seen in recent years.

As DAV’s national commander, Marbes met on behalf of DAV with then President Clinton and leaders in the Clinton Administration. “To me, elevating the role of the WDVA Secretary to the cabinet level, just like at the national level, is good for the state veterans’ agency and good for veterans,” he says. And he says he respects the views of those who believe that a Board overseeing WDVA prevents politics from entering into WDVA’s operations. However, Marbes says that noble goal has simply not ever been the reality.

From my own insider experience at WDVA, I fully concur with Mr. Marbes. My close firsthand experience with Boards of Veterans Affairs appointed by both Republican and Democratic governors has shown me that contrary to popular belief, a Board does not insulate WDVA from politics, and in fact only prolongs the politics of each former governor for several years into the first or even second term of each successive new governor.

Despite mistaken public perceptions, this created a relationship between the Governor’s office and WDVA that was not only frequently problematic, but often hostile. It should go without saying that an executive branch agency that does not have the support of the governor will have a very difficult time doing the people’s business it is charged with doing.

Now, some have said that AB 96 is about a power grab by Governor Walker. That’s just simply not true. DAV and several other veterans service organizations have been working on these issues since well before last November’s election, and DAV’s support for this legislation has absolutely nothing to do with Governor Walker.

What this bill will do is to ensure a much greater role for the veterans’ service organizations, county veterans service officers, the people’s elected representatives in the Senate, and members of the public, in the selection, nomination, and confirmation of future WDVA Secretaries.

And, while this bill does not prevent a popular WDVA Secretary from being reappointed by a new Governor, it will explicitly prevent the kinds of adversarial relationships like the one that existed between Governor Doyle’s administration and the former WDVA Secretary and was prolonged for years under the current, politically charged Board system that dragged those politics out for years. And of course, it was the programs and services and the veterans they serve who suffered.

It also took two-and-a-half years for the current Board to get to know the most recent WDVA Secretary well enough to know that he wasn’t up to the job and to force him out. That kind of decision could have been made in an instant by a Governor and resolved with a phone call calling for resignation, as happens from time to time in other agencies under every Governor, including the last one on at least a few memorable occasions.

It is the position of DAV that the WDVA Secretary should be a member of the Governor’s cabinet, just like at the federal level. That level of interaction with other agency heads is absolutely critical because issues affecting our veterans are much more than just the handful of programs administered by WDVA. The unemployment rate in the current economy that affects veterans at even greater rates than their civilian counterparts in some areas is but one example and that will take an interagency team effort.

From personal experience, I can assure you that these kinds of interagency efforts are incredibly difficult when WDVA is perceived in some parts of state government as almost its own branch of government, responsible and responsive to no one, not even the veterans and their representative organizations. DAV and other veterans service organizations that have been actually advocating for veterans on actual, real live issues affecting veterans can provide many examples of the insurmountable hurdles under the current Board system.

DAV recommends several amendments, as shown in the handout provided to you that are necessary to accomplish this most important core function of the bill that would shift power away from the Board and to the WDVA Secretary.

As currently drafted and likely an unintended drafting consequence related to this core provision of the bill, AB 96 would create a confusing and possibly unintended separation of powers, with the Board retaining its current-law role as head of the agency with the requirements to supervise and direct the agency, but with the Secretary appointed by, supervised by, and directed by the Governor. In other words, the Board has significant and substantial duties overseeing, regulating, and advising the department but no direct authority to take action. Additionally, many of Wisconsin’s most important veterans’ programs and services, including employment, education, and property tax relief, fall outside of WDVA’s administrative purview. Therefore, DAV makes the following recommendations to amend AB 96.

a. RECOMMENDATION: Amend AB 96 to make the Secretary the head of the agency. Amend AB 96 to make the role of the Board purely advisory, but to advise both the WDVA Secretary and the Governor on all matters related to veterans.

b. RECOMMENDATION: Amend AB 96 to ensure the WDVA Secretary personally reviews the proposed biennial budget with the Board for its approval.

c. RECOMMENDATION: Amend AB 96 to elevate the role of the Board to advise the WDVA Secretary and the Governor.

WDVA Secretary Must Be a Veteran. Additionally, DAV is in support of requiring, at a minimum, that the WDVA Secretary be required by law to be a veteran as defined in Wisconsin statutes Chapter 45 (“Veterans Affairs”). We have all heard concerns from all quarters that the veterans secretary be an advocate for veterans. While this might be difficult to legislate, the minimal requirement that the WDVA Secretary, at a minimum, shall be a veteran is a key part of DAV’s support for the concepts laid out in AB 96.

Currently, this requirement is contained in the Board’s governing rules, but an amendment to AB 96 is required to make this requirement pertinent to the Governor’s appointment of the WDVA Secretary under AB 96.

Consulting Veterans Organizations. AB 96 requires personal consultation by the Governor with the presiding officers of at least 6 Wisconsin veterans’ organizations prior to recommending a WDVA Secretary nominee to the Senate for consideration and confirmation. DAV is in support of this general concept. However, we note three issues in the current draft of AB 96 that should be corrected.

First, “Presiding officers” is not defined. Second, AB 96 as currently drafted does not require the head or presiding officer to be the Wisconsin-based head or presiding officer of the organization. Third, the “6 Wisconsin veterans organizations” are not currently defined in AB 96.

DAV’s position is that whatever the number of consulted veterans organizations, these organization should not just be any veterans organizations without qualification or definition, a provision that could easily be abused by an untoward governor. Instead, we recommend that this provision of AB 96 be amended to ensure they are qualified veterans service organizations accredited by the federal VA and that they are represent the largest number of veterans. DAV recommends something along the lines of the following language: “The governor shall personally consult with the Wisconsin head or presiding officer of each of Wisconsin’s six largest veterans’ service organizations, as defined by their total number of Wisconsin members, which are accredited by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.”

This modification would ensure largest veterans service organizations, by number of Wisconsin members, means any qualifying Wisconsin-based veterans service organization has the potential of growing its membership base large enough to be part of that number, whatever that number might be.

Support for AB 96 Contingent Upon These Three Amendments. It is important to note that DAV’s support for AB 96 is contingent upon making these three sets of necessary amendments: requiring the WDVA Secretary to be a veteran; ensuring the WDVA Secretary is the agency head with directing and supervisory roles; and, requiring the veterans organizations consulted by the Governor in AB 96’s appointment process to be Wisconsin’s largest veterans service organizations, as defined by their total number of Wisconsin members, which are accredited by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Additional Amendments for Consideration. DAV has also done an extensive analysis of AB 96 as currently drafted, and has listed a substantial number of potential recommendations for consideration by the Committee. DAV’s positions on these are listed on the front of the handout before you.

Among these is a recommendation to change the definition of “veteran” in AB 96 to three additional categories of living veterans as already listed in Chapter 45 of the state statutes, including a category of service-disabled veteran discharged due to a service-incurred or –aggravated injury or illness prior to the end of their otherwise qualifying period of active duty.

DAV supports the provision of the bill to require new Board members to be a “veteran” in accordance with Chapter 45 of the state statutes.

Finally, it is DAV’s position that there should be strong consideration for service-disabled veterans in appointments to the Board, the Secretary’s position, and any WDVA position. Arguably, it is combat wounded and other service-disabled veterans who have born the heaviest weight of military service and the lives of these men and women is often changed forever in just an instant. We owe it to our disabled veterans to ensure that if they are able, that we as a nation and a state provide all possible assistance to help them secure gainful employment commensurate with their knowledge, skills and abilities and work to accommodate their disabilities however possible.

Again, on behalf of DAV State Commander John Hoeft, DAV’s executive committee and entire leadership team, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.

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