Gov. Ducey reverses raid on veterans' fund

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday withdrew a proposal to use money donated to help Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to help operate three veterans' cemeteries - a proposal that drew fierce opposition from vets and their supporters.

Ducey's proposal, released last week, called for taking more than $900,000 from the Military Family Relief Fund, which helps pay expenses for veterans and their families. It called for shifting the cash to pay for operations at two new veterans' cemeteries and an existing cemetery.

Ducey Budget Director John Arnold told a joint meeting of the Legislature's appropriations committees Tuesday that the governor's office will find another way to pay for the cemetery operations.

"The last thing we want to do is impact military families or any of the benefits they receive," Arnold said. "And if that is something that the community is concerned about, the legislature is concerned about, we're happy to find another way to fund cemeteries."

More than 24 provisions of the governor's $9.1 billion budget proposal would take money set aside for another purpose and use it to balance the budget. In all, Ducey proposes transferring more than $300 million from special funds to other uses.

The military relief fund proposal got the attention of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are veterans.

Ducey proposed cutting $275,000 from the Veterans Services Department that pays upkeep for a cemetery in Sierra Vista. Two new cemeteries are being opened, one in Sierra Vista and one in Marana, upping the yearly cost to more than $900,000.

The veterans' fund Ducey wanted to use contains more than $5 million donated by taxpayers, who get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.

Democratic Rep. Mark Cardenas, an Iraq war veteran, said the fund helps pay expenses for families who need to visit wounded veterans in the hospital and other costs for returning veterans.

"They figured no one would care," Cardenas said. "And I've been getting emails all night from people who are very active in the veterans' community, saying this is ... they had more salty words than I did."

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, also was prepared to fight the proposal.

"This is why it's a proposed budget. It still has to come through the House," the retired Marine said.

Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said in a statement that the governor is committed to ensuring vets get the services and funding they deserve.

"He appreciates the feedback from the veteran community and will be adjusting his budget so that we best protect this fund, while also ensuring our veterans who have lost their lives have a proper resting place," Scarpinato said.