Governor would like Cabinet-level VA post

Ohio has the nation’s
sixth-largest population of veterans.

COLUMBUS (AP) — Gov. Ted Strickland will move to add Ohio to a list of more than 20 other states that have Cabinet-level veterans affairs agencies, after a report he commissioned supported the formation of the new department, a spokesman said Thursday.

An increasing number of states in recent years have elevated veterans issues to the highest level as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought them into the spotlight.

Raising awareness on veterans issues was part of Strickland’s campaign platform before taking office in 2007, and he formed the 22-member Veterans Study Council last May to study the feasibility of creating a Cabinet-level agency. Backed by the report’s recommendations, Strickland, a Democrat, will likely to take his plan to the Republican-controlled state Legislature, said spokesman Keith Dailey.

The Ohio House and Senate will review the recommendations. Senate President Bill Harris, an Ashland Republican, is generally supportive of creating the agency but needs to look at the report, said Maggie Ostrowski, a spokeswoman for Harris.

Creating a Cabinet-level department raises awareness for veterans issues, said John Scocos, president of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs and secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Veterans Services.

“With our country at war right now, all of our governors are dedicated to doing what’s right for the veterans,” Scocos said. “It helps with clout with the Legislature.”

Scocos said 22 states out of 34 that responded to a survey from the organization have Cabinet-level veterans departments. Missouri, New Mexico and Pennsylvania have elevated their veterans agencies to that level in recent years, as more service personnel have been involved in the wars abroad, he said.

Strickland formed the study council to receive recommendations on how Ohio could better connect veterans with disability benefits, pension payments and other services that are available through the federal government.

The federal government has ranked Ohio 43rd among the states for veterans’ use of those services. Ohio — which has the nation’s sixth-largest population of veterans — has lagged other states in securing federal money for veterans. More than 1 million veterans live in Ohio, and thousands more from the state are serving in the military.

Roughly 9.8 percent of Ohio veterans receive either disability compensation or pension benefits. The national average is 12.1 percent.

The governor already has an Office of Veterans Affairs, which advises him on veterans issues and oversees county-level offices. But creating a Cabinet office, which would be equal to agencies such as the health department or the prisons department, would give the issue more visibility and status, Strickland has said.