Monday, May 23, 2011

DAV Testimony: Today’s Hearing on SB 97

Testimony of the Disabled American Veterans Department of Wisconsin

Presented to the Wisconsin State Senate Committee on

Economic Development and Veterans and Military Affairs

By Anthony Hardie, DAV State Special Assistant

May 23, 2011

Chairman Hopper, Ranking Member Lassa, and members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development and 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 SB 97 [and AB 96 as amended by ASA1], which now includes nearly all of the amendments requested by DAV to strengthen the bill. And a special thank you to Senator Joe Leibham, 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, Somalia, and more than seven years active duty service. I’m a DAV life member since 1997 and an unpaid, unreimbursed volunteer 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 Governors’ political appointees of both parties.

I’m pleased to be accompanied today by service-disabled Vietnam War veteran Al Labelle of Marshfield 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 individual. 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.

Points of Agreement. First, we want to point out where the veterans organizations agree. It’s unlikely you’ll hear any arguments from anyone here today, from supporters or from opponents of this bill, that anyone wants to further politicize WDVA. That simply isn’t true, not for DAV, and not for anyone that we’ve heard speak about this bill.

And it’s unlikely you’ll hear arguments about anyone wanting less accountability for WDVA. Everyone who even picks up a newspaper now and then knows there have been and still are very serious challenges facing our state veterans agency. Newspapers like to sell stories, and so a headline that the veterans community is divided is exciting for them. And some partisans like to try and sharpen distinctions into divides as well.

But the veterans community is not nearly so divided as they try to portray. After hearing the nearly four hours of testimony at the Assembly hearing on this bill, it’s clear that everyone wants the veterans agency to be governed in a manner that’s best for our veterans and not by partisan politics, everyone wants the agency to be run in a way that is reputable.

The disagreement comes down to a relatively small point – whether the best way to achieve these shared goals can happen under the current system of indirectly appointing and overseeing WDVA’s Secretary by the Governors’ political appointees on a board, or whether those goals can be better achieved under an updated system like under this bill where the WDVA Secretary is appointed by the Governor with a full Senate confirmation process in which the public can and should participate.

It’s also important to point out that this bill is not the “be all, end all” for WDVA. Once there’s a new Secretary, with or without this bill, all of us – legislators, veterans service organizations, and other interested parties must all come together to work hard to restructure, reshape and remake our state veterans agency and its programs and services to ensure they is doing what we all agree they should be doing – providing needed assistance to our state’s veterans that effectively and efficiently and appropriately supplement and complement and not duplicate what the federal government and other agencies are already doing.

Our testimony today is in support of SB 97 [AB 96 with ASA1] as a better way to begin that task. The Board has had years to fix what’s wrong at WDVA but has not succeeded. Now it’s time to try a different and very promising approach.

Head of Agency/Role of Board. First, DAV is in support of the most important aspect of this bill – 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 Governors’ appointees on 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 last month, at least in the case of WDVA, these Boards have not only not kept partisan politics from affecting the agency, but they have simply prolonged the politics of the last Governor, often for several years. As an example, 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. However, as a former Board member himself, he says it’s clear to him that accountability over a Secretary and an agency by very part-time, non-expert Board of Veterans Affairs political appointees 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 political appointees 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.

VSO Involvement. Now, some have said that this bill 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 last year, well before last November’s election. DAV’s support for this legislation has absolutely nothing to do with Governor Walker or either political party, it’s about what we believe is best for our state veterans agency in best serving our state’s veterans.

What this bill would do, through the public confirmation of future WDVA Secretaries, is it would 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.

Transparency. Currently, WDVA Secretaries are selected in secret, behind closed doors, by Governors’ political appointees with no public participation, involvement or knowledge; this is the complete opposite of open, transparent government. In fact, only a pro forma vote to appoint the Secretary is required to take place in open session, with all the discussion and debate in closed session. There has been no opportunity for public involvement or even knowledge of the proceedings. In the most recent case, there wasn’t even any public knowledge of who were the choices to replace the former Secretary. Everything was conducted in secret.

It’s long past time to get rid of these secret backroom deals and eliminate this embarrassing relic of the past that goes entirely against Wisconsin’s tradition of open government.

Veterans Appointing. Some have expressed concerns about this bill allowing for the appointment of a WDVA Secretary by a Governor who is not a veteran. Well, in Washington, DC, the same process that this bill would create gave us our current, highly respected Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, appointed by a President who, like many in the past, is himself not a veteran. And by contrast, our current political appointees – veterans – failed our state’s veterans in their appointment and retention of the former WDVA Secretary who earlier this year resigned under of cloud of mismanagement and controversy.

Turnover. Some have also expressed concern about this bill leading to greater turnover in the Secretary’s position.

First, under the current system, during the tenure of the last Governor, we saw not one but three WDVA Secretaries and a plethora of acting secretaries. Retaining the current system has no relationship whatsoever to duration of tenure.

While this bill does not prevent a popular WDVA Secretary from being reappointed by an incoming 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 that 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.

As another case in point, 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.

And, those with political science backgrounds might find ample examples to argue that incoming appointees with fixed term tenures, like the four-year term of his or her appointing Governor, may well have greater motivation to quickly develop tangible achievements important to the veterans the agency serves than one appointed under the current system with an open and indefinite appointment.

We look forward to each successive Governor being able to choose a new WDVA Secretary on inauguration day rather than getting stuck with one for years with no redress for removal except to an unaccountable political Board made up of appointees often known only to the Governor and his or her friends and allies but not to the veterans community.

And if the previous Secretary has been a good one and has operated in a non-partisan manner, then he or she might be kept by the next Governor, just like the case in the state of Georgia where revered veterans Secretary Pete Wheeler has been an icon in the veterans community, reappointed by successive Governor’s since he was first appointed shortly after WWII!

While in theory some hold that there is concern about turnover, these real life examples should bring light to help alleviate that concern.

Elevate to Cabinet Status. 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 viable programs still 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 that will take an interagency team effort. As a placeholder, you can expect to be hearing more from DAV on these important issues shortly after the budget process is complete.

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.

Amendments. During our advocacy in the Assembly, DAV recommended several amendments necessary to accomplish the most important core function of the bill that would shift power away from the Board and to the WDVA Secretary. I’m pleased to report that nearly all of these were incorporated into the bill that is before you today [SB 97].

Veteran, Active Duty Requirements. Among these are requiring the Governor’s Board political appointees and the WDVA Secretary to be a veteran with active duty military service, and accordance with the definitions of these terms provided in the chapter of state law that governs veterans affairs.

We have all heard concerns from all quarters that the veterans secretary be an advocate for veterans, and I’m sure we all agree on that point. 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 this bill.

The twin requirements of veteran status with active duty service will help ensure that those overseeing WDVA will meet the same eligibility requirements as veterans applying for the programs they oversee.

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. As the nation’s and state’s largest voice for service-disabled veterans, DAV would have preferred an assurance that DAV would be included among those six.

However, preferences over this provision are simply not worth falling on our sword. Like all other engaged and interested organizations, individual veterans, and members of the public, the Senate confirmation process is the key to this legislation in ensuring open, transparent public involvement in determining each successive WDVA Secretary.

Conclusion. Finally, it is DAV’s position that there should be strong consideration for service-disabled veterans in every appointment 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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