State Rep. Kevin Petersen, R-Dayton, has introduced a bill to change how the Veterans Affairs (VA) secretary and board are selected.
Currently, the governor makes appointments to a seven-member board when a member’s six-year term expires. The board appoints the VA secretary.
Under Petersen’s proposal, the governor would appoint the VA secretary himself and appoint board members for three-year terms. The bill also seeks to increase the size of the board to nine members.
“For the last couple of years, I have talked to numerous veterans who are unhappy with the leadership in management of both the Veterans Affairs board and the board-chosen secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Petersen said.
Petersen pointed to a recent Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) report as evidence of problems within the VA.
According to the report, auditors found serious financial problems in the Wisconsin veterans homes.
The audit reported that the home in Union Grove had run deficits four of the prior five years and that the home in King had transferred $21 million to Union Grove over a five-year period beginning in 2005. LAB concluded that “inadequate oversight contributed to significant financial and program management issues.”
Last week, Kenneth Black resigned as the VA secretary. Black became the VA secretary in November 2009, when he replaced then-Secretary John Scocos, who had been fired by the board.
Since Black’s April 1 resignation, Deputy Secretary Donna Williams has been named the acting secretary.
“What I’m hearing from the veterans is that there’s no accountability of the secretary to the veterans because the position is appointed by the board,” Petersen said.
Petersen said that under the current system, the VA secretary cannot promulgate any rules or regulations without approval by the board.
“We have a secretary who’s a puppet of a seven-member board,” Petersen said.
Under Petersen’s proposed bill, the VA secretary must consult with the board before promulgating new rules, but the board’s approval is not required.
According to Petersen, having the governor appoint the VA secretary would also make the position more accountable to veterans.
The bill also stipulates that the governor “must personally consult with the presiding officers of various veterans groups that are listed as veterans service organizations in the state of Wisconsin.”
“Ultimately, it’s still the governor’s choice, but this gives the veterans face time with the governor during his selection of the secretary,” Petersen said.
Under Petersen’s bill, the governor’s appointment will be confirmed by the state Senate.
“This means that if the veterans are still unhappy with the person the governor chooses, they can go to their senators and express their disapproval. And if the veterans still don’t like who was appointed, they can change the governor after his four-year term is ended,” Petersen said. “Right now, you have an unelected secretary who has no accountability to anyone except the board.”
Petersen’s bill also requires that there be one board member from each of Wisconsin’s nine congressional districts. Three new members would be appointed each year.
“Right now, we can go a long expanse of time before there are any changes on the board,” Petersen said.
The bill would also require all members of the VA board to be veterans who have served on active duty as defined by state law. This means someone who has served on active duty in the military for two continuous years or for 90 days during a war.
The bill also seeks to remove the current requirement that at least two of the seven-member board be Vietnam veterans.
“We’re hearing from veterans of the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan that they want to be treated equally,” Petersen said.
He noted that at the time the requirement was enacted, Vietnam veterans were experiencing discrimination and needed legal protection.
The bill began being circulated for co-sponsors Wednesday, April 6. It is co-authored in the state Senate by Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, whose district includes the veterans home in Union Grove.