- Associated Press - Friday, April 10, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Ray Geffre and several other veterans who gathered at the state Capitol Friday shook their heads in disbelief after North Dakota’s House killed bipartisan legislation that would fund burials for military spouses at the state-owned cemetery near Mandan.

“They spend so much money on so many other programs that are worthless with a capital “W” and they couldn’t fund this?” said Geffre, of Bismarck.

The House defeated the measure 58-32, after Senators unanimously endorsed it in February.

Rep. Larry Bellew, R-Minot, a U.S. Air Force veteran, said a House panel that had recommended voting against the measure didn’t feel that the $550 cost to bury veterans’ spouses or their children was “too onerous, nor did we feel that state taxpayers should pay for that.”

The measure would have set aside $160,000 over the next two years to pay for burials for spouses and children of veterans under the age of 21.

The House Appropriations Committee had sent the measure to the full House with a 19-2 “do-not-pass” recommendation

Belcourt Democratic Sen. Richard Marcellais, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam and the bill’s main sponsor, said spouses of military veterans are deserving of the no-cost burials.

“I’m disappointed but we will bring it back,” Marcellais said of the legislation.

Pamela Helbling-Schafer, director of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, said spouses and dependents share the same plot and headstone as the veteran, and are buried atop each other. Casket costs are not included in the $550 burial cost.

The cemetery has received about $80,000 in revenue annually from spouse and dependent burials, Helbling-Schafer said.

Republican Rep. Mike Nathe, who owns a funeral home in Bismarck, said cemeteries operated by the Veterans Administration don’t pay funeral costs for spouses, so North Dakota is “consistent with the rest of the country.”

Democratic House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad of Parshall said the funding “was not too much to ask” to show respect to veterans and their families.

Geffre, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, and other veterans who gathered at the Capitol agreed that the role of a spouse is widely considered the toughest job in the military.

“They hold down the home, raise the children and get them off to school,” he said.

Rep. Bill Amerman, D-Forman, who served as an Army infantryman in Vietnam, said he wasn’t surprised by the vote of his fellow lawmakers.

“When you’re in the military you are the biggest asset the country has,” Amerman said. “When you get out of the military, you become a liability.”

The North Dakota Veterans Cemetery was established in 1989 and opened in 1992. It is 6 miles south of Mandan on a 35-acre tract of land in the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.

Through January, 4,667 veterans had been buried at the cemetery since it opened, along with 1,707 spouses and 49 dependent children. The cemetery averages approximately 450 burials per year, she said.

The cemetery’s budget in fiscal 2014 was $487,000, funded by the state.

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