BOSTON (SHNS) – Gov. Charlie Baker told a group of veterans gathered at the State House Wednesday that they “will always have a friend in this administration.”
Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito spoke to a crowd assembled to attend Speaker Robert DeLeo’s annual veterans’ luncheon.
The governor told the crowd he lives on Monument Avenue in Swampscott, where there are monuments to veterans who fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan.
“As I leave the house and as I come home, I am always reminded of the commitment and the sacrifice that our veterans make, and made for this country,” Baker said.
Baker recently appointed Francisco Urena as secretary of veterans’ services. Urena, who attended the event but did not speak, succeeded Coleman Nee as secretary. Urena, 34, who grew up in Lawrence, is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and received the Purple Heart.
After the event, DeLeo said he hopes Baker will treat funding for veterans similarly to local aid when it comes to potential cuts in state government spending. Baker and DeLeo have both registered opposition to cutting local aid to cities and towns.
“It would be a belief that veterans would be protected relative to any further cuts,” DeLeo told reporters. “Having said that, I would want to give the governor, Baker, an opportunity to present his plan and discuss it accordingly, but I would feel very strongly that veterans would not be an area where you would see cuts.”
Democratic legislative leaders who crafted the budget that has fallen badly out of balance, despite growing tax revenues, are turning to Baker, who has been in office for less than two weeks, for proposed solutions.
Asked if he agreed Baker’s estimate of a $765 million budget gap is accurate, DeLeo said he was in the process of reviewing it with Rep. Brian Dempsey, a Democrat from Haverhill who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee last session and is expected to take the helm again.
“I’ve heard lows of $500 to a billion, so I guess that if you were to split the difference, it would come very, very close to that. I would feel confident that it must be around that figure,” said DeLeo.
DeLeo was also asked if spending cuts are the only way to close the budget gap.
“Well, there are a number of things you can do,” he said. “I mean, you can talk about increasing revenue somewhere, you can talk about cuts. It would be my feeling that before any discussion is held relative to the possibility of raising revenue through taxes, that we look at any or all alternatives before we even get to that stage.”
DeLeo first hosted the first veterans’ luncheon in 1991 when he was newly elected to the Legislature. Back then, he joked, “My first thought was, I’ve only been here three months, who’s going to want to come and see me. But things have changed, obviously, since that time.”
With more than 385,000 veterans living in Massachusetts, including 37,000 men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2011, state lawmakers have tried to tackle some of the issues they face returning home, including unemployment and homelessness.
Since 2009, the Legislature has passed four major pieces of legislation aimed at helping veterans, according to DeLeo.
On Wednesday, Michael Sweeney, the veterans’ services officer in Lynn, urged lawmakers to continue to help veterans by protecting veteran service offices from spending cuts. He said VSO officers are the best way to care for veterans returning from war who need services.
“We ask you after 12 long years of war to continue to stand with us,” Sweeney told lawmakers.
Massachusetts is the only state that requires every city and town to have a veteran service office, according to Rep. Jerald Parisella, a Democrat from Beverly who served in Iraq.
Thomas Lyons, a Vietnam veteran and community services manager at MassHousing, said it is particularly important to stand by Vietnam veterans as they grow old.
“We cannot treat them aging-out as we treated them when they came home,” Lyons said, choking up briefly.
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