Tester introduces bipartisan bill to help secure Butte veterans home

by Montana Standard, Susan Dunlap

If Democrat Sen. Jon Tester’s bipartisan bill gets through committee, Butte and area veterans might have less of a wait for a new veterans’ home.

Tester and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., introduced legislation Thursday that would keep the Butte veterans’ home proposal, languishing for nearly 10 years, from falling further behind on the Veterans Administration priority list.

That’s important, says state Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte. Because of the formula the VA uses to prioritize funding building projects, the proposed Southwest Montana Veterans Home has been “leap-frogged” on the priority list by other building projects for veterans in states with higher populations, like California.

Tester’s bill would end that. The only exception would be if another project is being proposed due to urgent safety concerns.

Mike Lawson, commander of the Southwest Montana United Veterans Council, said Tester’s legislation is good news.

“We have not gotten a fair shot,” Lawson said Thursday.

Lawson and Sesso both point out that about 10 percent of Montana’s population is comprised of military veterans. That breaks down to around 100,000 veterans.

But while Montana is only second in the nation with the highest number of veterans per capita, states with larger population densities “trump” Montana on the priority list.

“There are over 23 million veterans spread all over,” Sesso said.

What’s at stake is $10 million federal dollars to build a 60-bed facility on a 10-acre parcel near the Interstate 90 and Continental Drive interchange.

Don Harrington pledged the land before he died. But the lot, now held under a trust, has a 10-year sunset window.

The state has $5 million in the coffers waiting to be spent on the project. The effort got underway to build the estimated $15 million facility about seven years ago.

Lawson said an effort is in process to spend the state’s $5 million to build a two- or three-unit facility on the promised lot next spring.

Tester voted for an appropriations bill amendment this past summer that would have allotted the VA with the resources to immediately provide Montana with federal matching funds for the Southwest Montana Veterans Home.

That amendment failed on a party line vote.

“Montana is home to the second most veterans per capita than any state in the country,” Tester said in a news release. “Despite this urgent need, Butte continues to be unfairly passed over for a veterans’ home because of an arcane and outdated formula. Republicans and Democrats support my bill because it meets the need of rural veterans, provides a real solution for Butte, and upholds this country’s commitment to all who have served.”

A second-term senator, Tester is up re-election in 2018.

Luke Jackson, a Tester spokesperson, said the bill now goes to committee. If it passes there, the House would have to draft and approve its own version before becoming law. Another option would be to attach the bill to larger legislation and it gets passed that way.

Either way, veterans like Lawson, who is also a commandant for the Marine Corps League Detachment 724, are aopeful that Tester’s bill could bring change for Butte veterans.

“It’s no surprise it’s Tester the one leading the way; he’s a wonderful veterans’ advocate,” Lawson said.