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Morinello, peers suggest it's time to consider state department for veteran services

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Two Republican state lawmakers hosted veterans in Niagara Falls Tuesday to criticize proposed state budget cuts to veteran services, while also offering their idea to end future budget battles.

Hosting a conference inside the LaSalle-Griffon VFW Post 917 on Seneca Avenue was Assemblymen Angelo Morinello and Jake Ashby. Both are Republicans as well as veterans. Morinello, the hometown representative, said the purpose of the gathering was a "call to action" in light of $5.68 million in budget cuts to veteran services in Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed 2020 state budget.

"New York State does not focus on its veterans," he said. "They do not assist them in the way that other states do, or what they should be doing."

Proposed cuts, according to Assembly minority conference members, include:

  • $4,035,000 to the Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer-to-Peer program, including $185,000 to Erie County, $185,000 to Niagara County, $185,000 to Chautauqua County and $135,000 to Cattaraugus County
  • $100,000 to the SAGE Veterans Project, which advocates for LGBTQ older veterans in need of health and wellness services
  • $200,000 to the "Helmets-to-Hardhats" job transition and preparation program
  • $200,000 to "Clear Path for Veterans," an additional job skills and training program, which also includes K-9 therapy
  • $500,000 to NYS Defenders Association Veterans Defense Program, which provides legal support to veterans and service members in the criminal or family court systems
  • $100,000 to the North Country Veterans Association
  • $200,000 to Legal Services of the Hudson Valley Veterans and Military Families Advocacy Project
  • $125,000 to the Department of New York VFW of the U.S. Field Service Organization
  • $220,000 to the NYS Defenders Association Veterans Defense Program, Long Island Expansion

"Six million dollars going towards veterans. That's unconscionable," said Ashby, who is from Castleton, near Albany along the Hudson River. "And what happens year after year during the budget process is we see pieces of it cut, or cut completely. And then we have to go in and justify it. Think of that. We have to justify supporting our veterans and their families year after year. And to me, that's just that's not right."

The state is facing a projected $6 billion budget deficit for the new fiscal year, which begins April 1. Ashby and Morinello believe one way to end the yearly battles to have veteran funding restored in the budget is to establish a dedicated veteran services department within state government.

"Over the last four years, the budget that has come over from the Executive Office has eliminated any assistance for the veterans. And what we've had to do is fight to get it back in but at a reduced amount," Morinello said. "This is not something we should be having to fight for every year."

Ashby says the state is rich in military heritage, including West Point Academy and Fort Drum. Veterans in attendance pointed out the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station is Niagara County's largest employer.

Ashby has introduced legislation to study the possibility of forming a formal veterans department.

"When we look at other state agencies like the Department of Health, like the Department of Transportation, the state would then have its own veterans agency," he said. "Other states have done this as well, and it's allowed them to allocate more federal funding. It's allowed them to grow their programs to provide for veterans. And really, it should beg the question: why haven't we done this?"

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.