A late-session proposal to issue up to $40 million in bonds to help build a new joint headquarters for state veterans and mental health agencies was shelved by state lawmakers last week amid protests from some veterans’ groups.
“We applaud the intent of this bill; however, the perception that will be created with the co-locating of the Department of Veterans Affairs with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is not an image that we want to see reflected in the eyes of the veteran’s community and the general public,” Pete Peterson, chairman of the Oklahoma Veterans Council, said in a letter to lawmakers dated May 21.
State Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, said he can appreciate the concerns of veterans who contacted him.
“They were angry about the perception that it would give that veterans and mental health should be aligned so closely, because it does give that image that veterans have mental health issues and we certainly don’t want that to be the case,” Dorman said. “We do know there are many cases of post traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury that need to be addressed. Those individuals do need assistance, but the overall perception — that should not be the case.”
The proposal to build a joint headquarters building for the two agencies was submitted to the Legislature by retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, the governor’s Cabinet secretary for veterans affairs, and Terri White, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Aragon said Friday that she did not expect the negative backlash from groups like the Oklahoma Veterans Council and Disabled American Veterans. Aragon said she wishes she had done a better job of discussing the plan with veterans’ organizations.
“It was just some real bad misinformation. ... They were misinformed about a lot of the stuff,” Aragon said. “What they really want is a building of their own.”
She said it would be nice for veterans to have their own building, but that’s difficult because there are only 30 employees in the headquarters building.
Aragon said the governor and legislators were appreciative of the joint headquarters proposal because it was consistent with their efforts to consolidate agencies and downsize government.
So what happens next?
The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services still must do something, because both are in old buildings with serious problems that are at risk of being shut down, she said.
“I hope what we’ll do is redouble our efforts to try to get them the building they think they want,” Aragon said.
The alternative would be to try to educate veterans groups on why a stand-alone building is not feasible and work toward a consensus on having a joint headquarters building, Aragon said.
“We want to do what’s right for the taxpayers of Oklahoma,” she said. “We want to do something that shows our pride in veterans and what they’ve done for our nation, while at the same time we’re trying to be good stewards of the state’s money.”
Jeff Dismukes, spokesman for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said his agency continues to believe a joint headquarters is a great idea for both agencies and hopes an agreement for a shared building with the two agencies can be worked out by the start of the next legislative session.
We want to do what’s right for the taxpayers of Oklahoma. We want to do something that shows our pride in veterans and what they’ve done for our nation, while at the same time we’re trying to be good stewards of the state’s money.”
retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon,