Panel backs increase in veterans funding

After several years of tightening state funds, Missouri’s state-run veterans’ homes could see more money under a plan endorsed Tuesday by the House Veterans Committee.

The plan, backed on a 12-0 vote, would affect funds from different sources and for different programs. It would cut the amount of money available for Missouri Lottery prizes by about 3.5 percent and use that money for early childhood education programs that currently get funds from the Missouri Gaming Commission.

In turn, Gaming Commission money that now goes for early childhood education would be used to increase funding for veterans’ homes and for certain Missouri National Guard benefits.

The Missouri Lottery currently transfers 27 percent of its sales revenue to public schools. The plan endorsed Tuesday, sponsored by Republican Rep. David Day, of Dixon, would keep that amount of assistance in place.

Under current law, Gaming Commission money is divided between veterans’ homes, the National Guard, Access Missouri scholarships, early childhood education and programs to curb compulsive gambling. Day’s proposal would take early childhood education out of that equation.

That would amount to a large increase for the veterans’ homes. Last year, they received $6.6 million in funds from the Gaming Commission while early childhood education programs received $30.6 million, according to Day’s office.

“Their (veterans’ homes) money has basically disappeared,” said Day, who chairs the Veterans Committee. “Now there will be some security in their funding.”

The Missouri Veterans Commission operates seven homes, with a total 1,350 beds, that provide skilled nursing care to military veterans.

Dewey Riehn, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ National Legislative Committee, said the additional funds could help build more homes for roughly 1,700 veterans on waiting lists. He said the demand could increase as Vietnam War veterans get older and veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become eligible for the program.

“Veterans who would’ve died in other wars are being saved,” he said. “Their long-term care needs are going to start at a much younger age.”

Reception to Day’s bill hasn’t been uniformly positive. A lottery spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday, but lottery officials have said reducing the money available for prizes could hurt ticket sales, which in turn could mean less revenue available for educational programs.

Day said the committee favors the lottery plan over a proposal supported by Gov. Jay Nixon to increase the per-patron fees that casinos pay and using those funds for veterans’ homes. Day said he was concerned about singling out one industry to fund a statewide program.

But Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said the legislation endorsed Tuesday also could hurt members of his trade group.

Leone said convenience stores use lottery tickets to bring in customers who then buy other products.

“They’re big in the sense of bringing customers in the door, even if not in terms of profit margin,” he said of lottery tickets. “Anything that dissuades customers from coming into our stores concerns us.”

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