- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Two state agencies that serve Nebraska veterans would merge to streamline services and save the state an estimated $1.4 million under a new proposal endorsed Monday by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Ricketts unveiled the measure as one of his top priorities for this year’s session, saying it would help veterans in a more efficient and effective manner.

The legislation would combine the Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the state’s Division of Veterans Homes, which operates under the Department of Health and Human Services.

“What we hope to accomplish is create a one-stop shop for all of our veterans,” Ricketts said at a standing-room press conference with roughly 70 veterans.

The Division of Veterans Homes operates facilities for veterans in Bellevue, Grand Island, Norfolk and Scottsbluff. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has operations in Lincoln and Alliance and works with a network of veterans’ service officers throughout the state.

A new state veterans’ home is set to open in Kearney in 2018 fall of 2018, replacing the current outdated facility in Grand Island.

By merging the agencies, Ricketts said the state will have a single team working for veterans who can share resources and information. It also will allow the state to tap federal dollars that will replace an estimated $1.4 million drawn from the state’s general fund. The shift will “further eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy,” said John Hilgert, who oversees both agencies.

Beth Linn, the Nebraska state commander of the American Legion, called the bill “necessary and long overdue.”

“This legislation puts the care and treatment of our veterans where it belongs - under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Linn said. “The Nebraska VA understands the needs of all of our veterans.”

Nebraska has more than 143,000 veterans, many of whom are served by both agencies. Approximately 550 veterans live in the state-run homes, and Hilgert said he expects that number to increase over time.

Sen. John Murante, chairman of Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, is expected to introduce the bill Thursday after Ricketts delivers his annual address to lawmakers. If it passes, the legislation would go into effect on July 1.

“This will be a streamlined process for the state of Nebraska, and I think it’s an important step forward,” Murante said.

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