News Column

Rep. Vela Wary of Sequester's Impact on Veterans

Feb 25, 2013

Allen Essex

Filemon Vela
Texas Congressman Filemon Vela

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas, 34th district) said Friday that sequester budget cuts "theoretically" would not affect veterans benefits, but it is too early to tell with certainty.

Vela and U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas, 15th district) met with Department of Veterans Affairs officials behind closed doors Friday but later answered questions about the impact of sequestration.

VA health services, Social Security and Medicare are to be "theoretically" spared the budget ax, Vela said.

"The sequester largely excludes veterans benefits. But I don't think we're going to be able to tell what the real impact on veterans benefits will be until it takes place," Vela said.

"What we're being told is that it will be exempted. But knowing that it has all these other impacts on the defense budget, it's just kind of hard to tell. You can't say with a certainty that veterans benefits won't be affected."

But Robert Walton, director of the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, said the federal Office of Management and Budget has stated there will be no furloughs of VA employees.

The Department of Veterans Affairs operates on a two-year budget cycle, said Walton, who is in charge of VA medical care from north of Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande Valley to Laredo.

"There will be no furloughs of VA employees," he said.

Other issues addressed by Vela and Hinojosa were:

Planned cuts to Head Start, a pre-school program that helps children from low-income families prepare to begin school.

"One of the saddest effects of sequestration is that it will definitely affect Head Start," Vela said. "I've seen first-hand this week the positive effect of Head Start by visiting a Head Start classroom in Alice," he said.

"I think the idea that we would allow sequestration to go forward is going to deliver a catastrophic blow to Head Start. It's a very valuable program for children."

The Rio Grande Valley water crisis. Vela said there are four border congressmen, including him and Hinojosa, who are working on ways to persuade Mexico to return water it owes the United States under the 1944 Guadalupe Water Treaty.

But Hinojosa warned that, during the long drought from 1994 to 2001, it was only after hurricanes dumped water on Mexico after six years of drought that Mexico attempted to have floodwater drained into the Rio Grande count as repayment of water under the treaty.

Since that drought, Congress has provided funding to line irrigation canals along the border with heavy plastic to reduce the seepage of irrigation water into the ground, Hinojosa said.

Vela commented on the issue of separating immigration reform from increased border security.

The freshman congressman said there needs to be a better system so immigrant farm workers and others who work in seasonal low-skilled jobs can cross into the United States legally and return home periodically.

But Vela said he needs to study other, more complex immigration issues before committing on any policy change.

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