Gianforte asks for federal grant for Butte veterans cottage after vetoing use of only state funds

VA has large backlog of projects in grant program that will be addressed first

By: - November 10, 2023 5:25 pm
The Southwest Montana Veterans Home in Butte.

The Southwest Montana Veterans Home in Butte. (Courtesy image)

After vetoing the use of only state money appropriated by lawmakers to build a sixth cottage at the Southwest Montana Veterans Home in Butte earlier this year, Gov. Greg Gianforte and his administration have requested federal money to be used for the project instead.

But even if the request for the money is approved, it could be years before that happens because of a backlog in existing requests and how much money the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has available for the grants each year in its appropriations from Congress.

Gianforte and the Department of Public Health and Human Services announced this week they had submitted an application to the VA State Home Construction Grant Program asking the program to fund 65% of the estimated $5.7 million cost of the cottage.

A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office said Gianforte had secured $2 million in federal ARPA funds the state already has in order to put up the 35% of state dollars to receive the federal match for the project.

“We’re committed to ensuring Montana veterans receive the resources they need following their selfless service to our nation,” Gianforte said in a statement. “With the state’s $2 million investment for the sixth cottage, we’ll build on the exemplary care that the Southwest Montana Veterans Home is providing our veterans.”

The announcement this week comes as Gianforte spends the week honoring Montana’s veterans – hosting multiple ceremonies to commemorate vets who received the 2022 Governor’s Veteran Commendation, discuss property tax relief for disabled veterans, and honoring the 2023 recipients of the veteran commendation on Friday – ahead of Veterans Day on Saturday.

There are already five existing 12-bedroom cottages at the licensed and certified skilled nursing veterans’ home in Butte which are home to 44 veterans and their spouses. The sixth would increase the facility’s full capacity to 72 veterans in a region that is already home to more than 4,00 veterans ages 65 and older.

The Governor’s Office said a new cottage would be geared toward specialized care, especially for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and traumatic brain injuries.

The fight over how to fund the cottage

The push for the sixth cottage has been several years in the making, and depending on whether the VA decides to match the state’s money, and how long it takes for the funding to come through, could mean it may take another several years to complete.

During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers authorized Montana to spend as much as $4 million to build the sixth cottage from a push by Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, who had told lawmakers a Missoula donor wanted to contribute a “significant” amount of money toward the project.

In this year’s session, the version of House Bill 5 that initially passed the Montana House in March dedicated $1 million from the state and $6 million from the federal government to build the sixth cottage, with a contingency that the project could not get underway until federal funds were obligated.

Senate Finance and Claims Committee lawmakers amended the bill to dedicate $6 million in state funds after a push for the money by Sen. Ryan Lynch, a Butte Democrat who said including those funds in the spending bill was “the least we could do to have a place for veterans to live.” The Senate and House signed off on that version of the bill despite objections from some Senate Republicans that it contained too much spending on some lawmakers’ local projects, including the cottage.

But Gianforte line-item vetoed the request for the sixth cottage out of the bill in late May, saying he was not sure if the federal government would reimburse the state for the money.

“I will not hold my breath that the federal government will repay the state any portion. A more fiscally responsible approach is to allocate the state’s portion of the project and secure federal funds for the balance, as we have done in the past,” Gianforte wrote in the veto letter, saying he also hoped he could work with legislators to fund the project “more prudently and responsibly” before the 2025 session.

At the time, Lynch criticized the veto in part because the state had a $2+ billion budget surplus he said could have been used to build the cottage instead of handing out widespread tax cuts.

Mid-June, Gianforte wrote a letter to Dave Williamson, the chairman of the Southwest Montana Veterans Home who had criticized the veto, saying he was committed to building the sixth cottage.

“I understand there are concerns, some real and some contrived, about funding a sixth cottage and SWMVH,” Gianforte wrote. “Let me say upfront that we are committed to getting the sixth cottage built, while also being the best stewards possible of Montana taxpayer resources. I’m confident you and I can both appreciate that dual obligation to our veterans and to Montana taxpayers.”

He said his budget director had assured him he could find $1 million for the project from already existing appropriations, and asked Williamson to work with the state’s federal delegation to try to press the federal government to secure the funding and hopefully get back in touch with the donor Keane had mentioned in 2021.

In July, Rep. Matt Rosendale introduced a bill to try to redirect $5 million in existing VA money for a different program to build the sixth cottage.

“I can tell you that federal funds will be put to far better use at the Southwest Montana Veterans’ Home than trying to fix the disastrous Electronic Health Modernization program,” Rosendale said at the time.

But after the bill was introduced and referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, it has seen no further movement nor drawn any cosponsors.

Foundation director, Butte lawmaker say VA backlog could mean long delays

On Thursday, Lynch provided a copy of communications sent to him by the VA that said any new grant application would be considered for the FY2025 priority list that will be announced next summer. Federal fiscal years begin on Oct. 1 of each year.

It also said that there remain dozens of approved projects under the grant program still awaiting funding from prior years because Congress only provided $150 million in funding for FY2023 and the projects total more than $1 billion.

That means even if Montana’s proposal is approved, it will likely take more than five years for the money to come through if Congress keeps appropriating $150 million each year.

In March, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a letter that the backlog for the total grant program was about $1.4 billion and would continue to grow if Democrats agreed to spending cuts to the VA proposed by Republicans pushing back against President Joe Biden’s budget proposal.

“The current backlog of grant projects eligible for support of approximately $1.4 billion would grow even more, resulting in these critical facilities taking longer to construct and repair, thus degrading access for Veterans,” McDonough wrote.

Sixty-four Democrats called for House Appropriations to provide the grant program with $600 million in Fiscal Year 2024, which they said would clear the backlog for projects that already had a state match in place and were in the top priority group. But that request was not met.

The Senate Appropriations Committee in July approved $164 million for the VA State Home Construction Grant Program in the FY2024 VA budget, and later that month, the House agreed to an amendment to take $5 million from the General Administration account and give it to the grant program.

Lynch said that during the session, some lawmakers from both parties were aware of the delays in the federal program and pushed to fund the sixth cottage through the state due in part to the backlog.

He said the government should be both constructing buildings for veterans like the cottage and recognizing them for their service to the country, and sees the announcement of the application from the administration as a way to score political points after the veto.

“On the eve of Veterans Day, we once again should be reminded that Gov. Gianforte is happy to jump on a private plane and take a picture with veterans,” Lynch said. “But when it comes to veterans in need, he certainly showed us how he likes to kick them in the teeth and is not willing to actually help veterans who most critically need care.”

Williamson, the chairman of the Southwest Montana Veterans Home Foundation, said he spoke this week with members of the Governor’s Office in Butte who confirmed the $2 million were appropriated by the state. But he said in an interview that since the state owns the facility, it will not begin construction on the sixth cottage until it has secured the full funding, and that money will, for now, sit in the Treasury.

But since the VA typically puts existing facilities and safety feature upgrades higher on the priority list for the grant programs than new construction, he believes the cottage project will be a lower priority and that construction prices will have only increased by the time the feds deliver the funds to Montana.

“If you’re lucky enough to be high enough on the priority list to get considered for immediate dollars and cents, that’s great. But I’ll bet we’re not going to see funding from the feds for another six to seven years,” he said. “And by the time that takes place, the cottage is not going to be a $6 million project. It’s going to be $10 or $11 (million).”

Williamson said he believes the state should have funded the project with state dollars because it owns the facility and because if Gianforte hadn’t vetoed the money in HB5, “we would have been breaking ground already here.”

He said when the governor suggested this summer the foundation conduct a fundraiser to raise extra money for the cottage, he suggested Gianforte’s foundation cut the full check, and after that is when the conversation went back to the VA application.

Williamson said the foundation hopes to work with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, to urge the VA to push the cottage project up higher on its priority list next October. But he said he believes Gianforte is “covering his ass” with this week’s announcement of the grant proposal.

“I’m thinking, ‘Well, I hope I’m alive long enough to see Cottage Six get built,’” he said.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.