Baker Focuses on Local Guard Deployments and Veterans’ Education in Senate Budget Hearing

HARRISBURG – Sen. Lisa Baker (R-20) questioned Acting State Adjutant Major General Wesley Craig about the mobilization of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 55th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, along with the operation of the state’s six veterans homes and the adequacy of funding for the state’s educational assistance program, during the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs’ budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Gen. Craig confirmed that about 3,000 Guard members from the 55th Brigade will be deployed to Kuwait in February 2012 for a year-long mission, and they will be “heavily engaged once they’re in there.” He said the brigade is expected to provide local security and convoy escort in that sovereign Arab nation, located on the Arabian Peninsula in western Asia.

The 55th Brigade is headquartered in Scranton, with units primarily located in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Gen. Craig also confirmed that 140 Pennsylvania Air Guard members are deployed in Libya, conducting refueling operations, and members of the 193rd Special Operations Wing are actively engaged as well. An additional 650 members of the Guard are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. Craig told Baker and her fellow committee members that no local Guard members are currently assisting rebuilding operations in earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged ravaged Japan.

Baker, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, also applauded the department for seeking additional funding for the educational assistance grant program, which she hailed as an “essential and very important benefit.” She said the Commonwealth has both a legal and moral obligation to fully fund this line-item. Craig predicted that 3,000 Guard members will receive this educational benefit in 2011.

Baker said the benefit is an excellent recruitment tool, and a well-earned reward for the nation’s veterans.

In his proposed 2011-2012 budget, unveiled March 8, Governor Tom Corbett asked for a $7.2 million increase in the transfer to the Educational Assistance Program Fund, bringing the appropriation to $13 million –a 125 percent increase.

Craig said that rapidly rising college tuition rates and a greater number of mobilizations have affected the program’s participation rates and funding levels.

Baker also applauded Act 66, which provides grant funding to veterans service organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW, to help fellow veterans access the federal benefits to which they are entitled. Baker said that for every dollar spent at the state level, an estimated $207 in federal dollars is brought back to the state to help veterans.

“The return on investment is tremendous,” Baker said. She offered to work with the department to expand the program and improve it if necessary, through both legislative and regulatory channels.

Baker also asked Gen. Craig about the inspection and licensing of the state’s six veterans homes and any modifications that may be made to their estate recovery program. Baker held a hearing on the program in November, in response to complaints from a number of grieving families who said they were unaware of their fiscal obligations to the state after their loved one’s death. Craig said the program’s notification procedures have been greatly revised and improved, and families are being kept apprised of their obligations upon admission, and then every year thereafter.

Baker also received a status update on reuse plans for the Franklin County-based Scotland School for Veterans Children, which has been mothballed since its closure in 2009. Gen. Craig said that both the federal Department of Defense and the Scotland Landing Foundation are interested in the property. He believes the $5 million appraised value of the 185–acre property is very low, and indicated that the property is now being reappraised.

Contact: Jennifer Wilson
(570) 675-3931