May 5, 2017 03:05 PM

Budget cuts to the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs could lead to the closure of state-funded veterans’ cemeteries in Leesville and Rayville.

The House of Representatives convened as a committee of the whole Thursday as they debated the funding bill for the 2017-18 fiscal year, allowing agency leaders to be called to answer questions before the entire chamber.

One of those testifying, Veterans Affairs Undersecretary Homer Rodgers, forecasted the closure of the cemeteries if the department’s budget were cut by the $147,638 mandated in House Bill 1, the Republican-crafted answer to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ spending plan.

House Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie said the VA’s claims that cemeteries would close seemed like a “scare tactic” given HB1 appropriation was roughly $153,000 higher than the governor’s initial proposal.

Henry said he was especially skeptical given the department’s agreeing to take a $377,000 cut in its budget last fiscal year, well above the $147,638 projected reduction for fiscal year 2017-2018. Henry questioned why cuts to the department’s driving services and computer system were out of the question while cemeteries were put on the line.

The projected costs for the Leesville and Rayville cemeteries exceeded expectations, Rodgers said, because they are newer than five years old and do not yet have enough burials to be self-sustaining. Besides, he said, the Louisiana VA has a 20-year commitment to the federal government, which provided money to create the burial sites. If they are closed, he warned, the state would have to return more than $10 million of federal funding.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said Henry’s suggestion made it seem like the Department of Veterans Affairs would be forced to choose between services to living disabled veterans and its maintenance of cemeteries to honor the dead.

“You’re being asked to choose between honoring the dead and servicing the living,” Leger said.

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