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Veterans support license fund use

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota veterans took aim at legislators and media accounts critical of the governor's office using veterans' funds to pay a staff member, and during a Thursday committee hearing senators apologized to veterans.

"I, quite frankly, do not know what all the fuss is about," said Al Holtan of Lake City, commander of the Minnesota Disabled American Veterans group.

Then Holtan said that he does realize why the situation became controversial: "We are in the Capitol. Politics happens here."

The Senate Finance Committee heard veterans' complaints while considering bills to regulate governor's office use of funds appropriated for other agencies. The committee took no action on the proposals.

Democrats have been critical of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty for using funds lawmakers appropriated for various agencies, including Veterans Affairs, to pay for staff members.

"We have a significant blurring of lines between agencies and the governor's office," Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said.

The veterans' issue drew the most controversy, and Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, apologized to veterans who were offended by senators' comments, including his that could be seen as being critical of how the money was spent.

"I think I ate a pretty good dose of crow," Murphy said of his initial opposition to the governor using veterans' funds.

"I was wrong," he added.

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said that as chairman of the Senate veterans' committee he is concerned that recent discussion is hurting "support our troops" car license plate sales.

Ralph Donais of United Veterans Legislative Council of Minnesota said some senators "have damaged" veterans, resulting in "discredit to the veterans' program."

A governor's office employee received part of her salary from the "support our troops" license fund to seek veterans in need.

"One of the biggest missions we have is to reach out to the veterans' community," Deputy Commissioner Mike Pugliese of the Veterans Affairs Department said.

Paula Brown of the governor's office said that using funds from agencies, not appropriated to Pawlenty, is "a useful tool that provides the executive branch flexibility of allocated resources to meet the state's needs."

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, and Cohen said the governor's budget would be easier to understand if only money appropriated to the governor's office is used to pay for Pawlenty's staff.

The governor is allowed to spend up to $702,000 a year to pay his staff from other agencies' funds.

"It is a questionable trend in a time when we are telling everyone else to tighten your belts and live within your means," Betzold said.

Boot approved

Representatives unanimously Thursday approved allowing Minnesota firefighters to use their boots to collect funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and other charities.

Firefighters in some communities for years have held out their boots at intersections, asking motorists to throw in their donations. But many cities banned the practice, citing safety and liability concerns.

The bill that passed Thursday allows full-time firefighters to solicit charitable funds via their boots while on duty.

Live checks banned

Checks sent to Minnesotans that deceptively sign people up for unplanned purchases or enroll them in a club would not be legal under a bill the House approved 103-30.

"In many cases, people don't know they've been tricked until it's already too late," Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said. "Unknown charges and fees start showing up on their credit card or bank statement for high-cost, low value products or services they don't want."

In many cases, the so-called "live checks" require an endorsement, which commit the person to an unplanned expense.

But some lawmakers said Minnesotans need to look out for themselves.

"We need to stop this effort to constantly protecting people from themselves," Rep. Paul Kohls, R-Victoria, said.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.