- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2016

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Mike Barker spends his days helping veterans obtain benefits from the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Barker, a former Marine, is a veteran services officer, an independently trained advocate who helps former members of the military through the VA claims process.

“They need a personal touch who knows how to do this,” Barker said, of veterans. “I’ve been there and I’ve done it. I know what the service does for you and doesn’t do for you. I know the conditions in which veterans served.”

The Oregon Legislature earlier this year agreed to put a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that, if passed, would dedicate a portion of state lottery proceeds to veteran programs, such as training veteran service officers.

Besides filing claims with the VA, Barker helps men and women who have served to acquire housing and other resources while they wait for their claim to be processed, reports The (Eugene) Register-Guard (http://bit.ly/2dmUWAw ).

He said he hopes Measure 96 passes and that, if it does, the funds are distributed responsibly. He doesn’t want the money to go to the VA. Instead, he hopes the money goes to nonprofit organizations that will then use the funds to hire veteran services officers.

The measure would amend the Oregon Constitution to require 1.5 percent of lottery proceeds be used to provide services for the benefit of veterans. Legislators predict the measure would allocate more than $9 million each year for the two-year period 2017-2019 for veterans’ programs. These services would include assistance with employment, education, housing, physical and mental health care, addiction treatment, reintegration and access to government benefits.

Designated proceeds would be deposited in a veterans services fund to be created by the Legislature. If the ballot measure passes, the Legislature plans to invite veterans to speak about their needs to determine where funds should be allocated.

Earlier this year, the Legislature heard comment from individuals and organizations urging the group to advance the measure.

Amber Stevens told the group of lawmakers it wasn’t until she sat down with a veteran service officer 15 years after she’d left the service that she realized she had post-traumatic stress disorder from being sexually traumatized while in the military.

“Generally, the human nature of pride is to not ask for help,” Stevens told a legislative committee in February. “Today, we who have survived serving our country are asking for help.”

The Legislature went on to unanimously agree to recommend the proposal to voters.

Now, some net lottery proceeds are constitutionally dedicated to the Educational Stability Fund and the Parks and Natural Resources Fund. Measure 96 would not affect those allocations, according to proponents.

They also say that having more veterans service officers may add to the number of documented veterans in Oregon and increase the state’s eligibility for matching funds from the federal government.

“We want to make sure the veterans in our state are being taken care of,” said Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, whose husband served two tours in Iraq. “We think this money and having a permanent allocation will start to bring our veteran communities together.”

Parrish said it was important to her to make sure funds are being dedicated to veteran services long after she’s done serving in the Legislature.

Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield, said the state should do what it can to ensure veterans get the services for which they are eligible.

He said Oregon is home to more than 325,000 veterans, with more returning from wars in the Middle East. Many of those vets, he said, aren’t taking advantage of benefits from the VA.

“What that doesn’t mean is that every vet out there has a health problem, it just means there’s a range of services available that they’re not utilizing, mostly because they don’t understand how to connect to them,” Lively said.

Lively said the measure would be a small investment of state funds in terms of returns in federal dollars. The VA counts veterans in order to qualify for federal benefits, but the VA recognizes only individuals who visit it.

“The state is leaving millions of dollars on the table of federal money that is available,” he said.

The lottery funds could pay to align veterans with veteran service officers to apply for VA benefits and for gap services for veterans to use while they wait for their claims to be processed. The VA claim process takes more than three years on average, Parrish said. Her husband has been out of the service almost five years and is still not through the process, she said.

Gap services could include mental and medical health care for veterans as well as addiction treatment and homeless services, Parrish said.

Measure 96 is supported by several veterans groups, but the City Club of Portland said the Legislature should not be budgeting by ballot measure.

“City Club remains committed to supporting our veterans, but we’re also committed to good governing,” said Chris Trejbal, communications director for City Club of Portland.

Trejbal said the group opposes Measure 96 because it locks spending for veterans into the state Constitution.

“We agree that veteran services do need better funding,” he said. “It’s a question of whether the appropriate way to fund them is through a ballot measure.”

City Club also is concerned that using the lottery to fund veteran services would mean less money for other purposes, such as education.

And the organization is skeptical of the promise for matching federal funds.

“Given the decline in support for veterans’ services at the federal level, we’re not sure it would actually manifest in future years,” Trejbal said.

___

Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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