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Veterans support license fund use

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota veterans took aim at legislators and media accounts critical of the governor's office using veterans' funds to pay a staff member, and during a Thursday committee hearing senators apologized to veterans.

"I, quite frankly, do not know what all the fuss is about," said Al Holtan of Lake City, commander of the Minnesota Disabled American Veterans group.

Then Holtan said that he does realize why the situation became controversial: "We are in the Capitol. Politics happens here."

The Senate Finance Committee heard veterans' complaints while considering bills to regulate governor's office use of funds appropriated for other agencies. The committee took no action on the proposals.

Democrats have been critical of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty for using funds lawmakers appropriated for various agencies, including Veterans Affairs, to pay for staff members.

"We have a significant blurring of lines between agencies and the governor's office," Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said.

The veterans' issue drew the most controversy, and Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, apologized to veterans who were offended by senators' comments, including his that could be seen as being critical of how the money was spent.

"I think I ate a pretty good dose of crow," Murphy said of his initial opposition to the governor using veterans' funds.

"I was wrong," he added.

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said that as chairman of the Senate veterans' committee he is concerned that recent discussion is hurting "support our troops" car license plate sales.

Ralph Donais of United Veterans Legislative Council of Minnesota said some senators "have damaged" veterans, resulting in "discredit to the veterans' program."

A governor's office employee received part of her salary from the "support our troops" license fund to seek veterans in need.

"One of the biggest missions we have is to reach out to the veterans' community," Deputy Commissioner Mike Pugliese of the Veterans Affairs Department said.

Paula Brown of the governor's office said that using funds from agencies, not appropriated to Pawlenty, is "a useful tool that provides the executive branch flexibility of allocated resources to meet the state's needs."

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, and Cohen said the governor's budget would be easier to understand if only money appropriated to the governor's office is used to pay for Pawlenty's staff.

The governor is allowed to spend up to $702,000 a year to pay his staff from other agencies' funds.

"It is a questionable trend in a time when we are telling everyone else to tighten your belts and live within your means," Betzold said.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.