Veterans and some lawmakers are displeased with Gov. Kathy Hochul's budget proposal and say it's insufficient for what the state's nearly 700,000 service members need.
Veterans and lawmakers praised Hochul for increasing funding last year for the Joseph P. Dwyer peer-to-peer mentoring program by more than $3 million in last year's budget to $7.7 million for all 62 counties — something her predecessor never did.
But several lawmakers are at odds with Hochul's executive budget proposal for FY 2024, which included a total $30 million for the Division of Veterans Services and $15,000 increase for the Dwyer program.
"Why are we continuing to come back and beg for the mental health treatment that we know is effective, that we know is growing among counties?" asked Sen. Jake Ashby, a Republican from Castleton. "All the programming that we've been advocating for over the last couple of years, we were hoping to see more of that included in this executive budget."
Ashby, a former U.S. Army Reserves captain who completed a tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the $15,000 increase to the Joseph P. Dwyer program is insulting. The program provides peer mentoring to service members and helps reduce veteran suicides.
Hochul's budget released Feb. 1 lacks details about the division being elevated to a full state department this spring.
In a budget hearing with senators and assembly members this week, Division of Veterans Services Director Viviana DeCohen said multiple times the new department will work with the Legislature to meet veterans' needs in response to questions about many veterans' issues.
The governor also proposed $1.1 million for a new Homeless Veterans' Housing program in the executive budget. DeCohen couldn't answer lawmakers' questions about how many homeless veterans will receive help with $1.1 million.
"We know that there's more to be done, especially as we're moving into our new nomenclature as a department," DeCohen said during testimony.
The division becoming a state department April 1 is only a name change — for now.
Lawmakers intended to streamline resources in the new department, wrangling in veterans programs and resources currently spread across multiple state agencies. But that restructuring will require additional legislation or language to be negotiated in upcoming budget talks.
Veterans say they want the new state department to have additional power and be a one-stop shop like lawmakers intended, adding it's stressful enough to assimilate once they leave the service, and navigating multiple state departments makes it difficult to access the resources available to them. Fewer than 20% of veterans statewide access benefits they are eligible for.
Michael Matos, New York's veteran advocate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, served as a maritime law enforcement specialist 2nd class in the U.S. Coast Guard. Veterans in the state need clarification on how the new department will support veterans if it only requires the change of a name and label, he said.
"We don't need name changes, we don't need monuments, we don't need memorials — we need actual sufficient resource and support, especially for those that are just coming out of the services," said Matos, of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. "There's not enough being done in the service to help these folks come out. There isn't enough done being outside of the service to help them out. We all need to come together to ensure that this is streamlined."
“Gov. Hochul's Executive Budget makes transformative investments to make New York more affordable, more livable and safer, and she looks forward to working with the Legislature on a final budget that meets the needs of all New Yorkers," governor's spokesman Avi Small said in a statement Wednesday.
Hochul's budget also includes $300,000 for new mobile veterans clinics, $500,000 over two years to modernize the five veterans' homes across the state and $500,000 for a new veterans' memorial registry.