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Public Statements

Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2008

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008

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Mr. DeMINT. Mr. President, I have an amendment I would like of offer, but since I do not see a manager here, I will explain the amendment first and then ask that the amendment be brought up as soon as I finish my comments.

The amendment I will offer will strike an earmark from this bill that takes $4 billion intended for America's veterans and transfers it to the well-to-do citizens of Beverly Hills, CA. It is remarkable that we are even considering a veterans bill that contains an earmark for a facility on Wilshire Boulevard--the main street through Beverly Hills--a site barely 3 miles from the ritzy shops of Rodeo Drive.

This earmark prevents the Veterans' Administration from taking highly valuable land in one of America's most lucrative real estate markets and putting it to work for our veterans. It would require that 200-plus acres in the middle of Beverly Hills that could be better used to generate revenue to care for America's veterans to sit empty.

The earmark completely undermines the results of over 3 years of study performed by nonpartisan, independent experts. It also undermines the authority of the Veterans' Administration to best help veterans around the country, not just those in the Beverly Hills area. The language on page 44 of the Senate substitute prohibits the Veterans' Administration from taking any action to:

exchange, trade, auction, transfer, or otherwise dispose of, or reduce the acreage of, Federal land and improvements at the Department of Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Medical Center, California, encompassing approximately 388 acres on the north and south sides of Wilshire Boulevard and west of the 405 Freeway.

The Veterans' Administration estimates that reuse of this land would result in approximately $4 billion in savings--that is $450 per square foot for 205 acres--that would go directly to the Veterans' Administration for future construction since the receipts are deposited into Veterans' Administration accounts under its enhanced-use lease authority. We should note that the Veterans' Administration's enhanced-use lease authority specifically allows the Veterans' Administration to lease land and retain receipts from the lease.

In addition, the Veterans' Administration can place an option to buy in the lease, whereby the property can be sold shortly after commencement of the lease, allowing the Veterans' Administration to retain the sale proceeds. This process was used in 2005 to sell property in downtown Chicago and the Veterans' Administration realized $50 million in proceeds. All can be used to better the health care of veterans.

As important, this prohibition that is written into this earmark would result in voiding the Capital Assessment Realignment for Enhanced Services process, known as CARES, which has been agreed to by Congress and the administration. Much like BRAC, one exception could undermine the entire process that was based on veterans' needs and not on earmarked interests.

CARES is a systemwide process to put the Veterans' Administration's infrastructure to the best use for the current and future health care needs of veterans. This process was completed in May of 2004, and approved on a bipartisan basis by Congress and the administration. All medical construction budget requests since the completion of the study have complied with CARES recommendations and passed by Congress; that is, until today, if this bill passes.

The study identified 18 sites which called for downsizing or disposal but which were naturally very controversial. Consequently, it was decided each of these sites needed ``further study and analysis.'' Some of these studies have been completed, and realignment has begun, but the West Los Angeles study is still in process.

The White House recently weighed in against this earmark, saying in its Statement of Administration Policy:

The Administration strongly opposes the earmark provision that prohibits the disposal or transfer of property at the 388-acre West Los Angeles Medical Center. This language circumvents the recommendations in VA's nationwide infrastructure study, the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES). The original decision on this property would have allowed VA to designate a portion of the campus for disposal or leasing ..... it is likely that the restrictive Senate language would eliminate more than $4 billion of revenue, which would be used to improve facilities around the country for our Nation's veterans.

The central concerns of those opposed to the reuse of portions of the 388-acre facility seems to be that it will

result in large commercial development. However, in the statement of work for the West L.A. project, the Veterans' Administration has included the following:

Because of a commitment made by a previous Secretary of Veterans Affairs, certain reuses of the property for commercial purposes were not considered in this study. In this context, the term ``commercial'' [includes] ..... uses such as shopping malls, movie theaters, convenience stores, fast food outlets, industrial/manufacturing activities, and other like operations. .....

So the Veterans' Administration is listening to the community and is considering their concerns.

In August of 2005, the Veterans' Administration issued an interim report, describing several options available for reuse of the land, but a final decision is still pending, and there is not yet a timetable as to when a decision will be made.

Two public hearings--in May and September of 2005--have taken place, and one is taking place tomorrow night at the VA Center in West L.A. We should let the process we put in place run its course and not overrule the recommendations of independent experts and the Department of Veterans Affairs who are looking out for the needs of America's veterans.

If every Member of this body were to begin blocking modernization of the VA system every time a well-connected constituent in their State complains, America's veterans would be saddled with outdated infrastructure and their health care needs would not be met.

I wish to put this earmark in perspective because it would be the most wasteful and questionable earmark we have seen since the infamous ``bridge to nowhere.'' The ``bridge to nowhere'' was extremely troubling, but at its heart was only an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars. This earmark, sadly, is much worse. It takes money--$4 billion of money--which would be used to care for the brave men and women who fought for our country and turns it over to build a park for Beverly Hills.

We should all be able to agree that a community with an average household income of $125,000 a year has a sufficient tax base to build a park and does not need a $4 billion handout from the Federal Government. The men and women who wore America's uniform need the money a lot more than the men and women who live in this part of L.A.

In fact, the Los Angeles Times editorialized on this situation recently, citing ``the compelling demands for park space'' in Beverly Hills as the best use of $4 billion. I disagree with the L.A. Times, as I often do, that $4 billion that belongs to veterans should stay with the Veterans' Administration.

Let me repeat, according to the judgment of the L.A. Times, the best use of $4 billion is a public park between Beverly Hills and Sunset Beach. This defies common sense, and we should all disagree with it.

My amendment is very simple. It would strike this language from the bill and preserve the VA's ability to make changes at this property that could generate over $4 billion for our Nation's veterans, as well as create a better facility that better serves the health care needs of our veterans. It would also preserve the integrity of the VA's process for realigning its infrastructure to meet the current and future health care needs of veterans and ensure that decisions are made according to the needs of our veterans, instead of the local desires of America's most rich and famous citizens.

I encourage my colleagues to support my amendment.

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