A year-and-a-half-old battle between South Dakota’s major veterans organizations and the administration of Gov. Mike Rounds is apparently going to continue into the 2009 legislative session.
At a meeting Saturday with Sioux Falls-area legislators, representatives from the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans pressed lawmakers to pass a concurrent resolution to create a state department of veterans affairs separate from the Department of Military Affairs that now oversees veterans issues. The group also urged for a bill requiring the director of the division of veterans affairs to have nothing less than an honorable discharge from military service.
This stems from a belief among veterans leaders that their assessment was not taken into account when George Summerside was named state veterans affairs director more than a year ago.
Also, while South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long said Summerside’s honorable discharge from military service in 1976 satisfied requirements in state statute for his appointment as head of veterans affairs and any subsequent discharge is irrelevant, veterans groups think Summerside might have a less than honorable discharge on his record.
Ron Boyd, state adjutant of the American Legion, told legislators because the National Guard’s role in the U.S. military has become much more prominent in the past decade, the state Department of Military Affairs needs to make National Guard issues its highest priority and can no longer devote adequate attention to veterans issues. So the departments should be split.
Adjutant General Steven Doohen was in Sioux Falls for an Air National Guard activation ceremony Saturday. He said splitting off veterans affairs from military affairs could be costly.
“I think we can make it work,” he said of a combined department. He also gave Summerside an endorsement, saying he has done “an outstanding job,” as acting director.
“I can’t for the life of me understand why the administration is not listening to you on this,” State Sen. Minority Leader Scott Heidepriem said. “At a minimum, there should be a dialogue with the chief executive of the state.”
Sen. Majority Leader Dave Knudson called the administration’s approach “almost bizarre.” While he is not convinced military affairs and veterans affairs should be separate, the Legislature has the power to split them rather than encouraging the governor
to do so in a resolution.
“We could do a bill, not just a concurrent resolution. I think you’re maybe aiming too low, frankly,” he said.
Sen. Tom Dempster, R-Sioux Falls, told veterans “it troubles me more than anything that you don’t have a seat at the table, that your voices are not heard.”
Rep. Richard Engals, D-Hartford, said he would support a bill requiring a veterans affairs director to have nothing less than an honorable discharge.
The veterans groups also urged legislators to study whether a veterans cemetery and veterans home should be built East River.
Representatives of the Marine Corps League and Paralyzed Veterans of America also attended.
Ryan Green, of the PVA, said that group is urging the legislature to either adopt a statewide building code or use international building code standards to ensure that public buildings throughout the state are accessible to paralyzed veterans.
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