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Proposed commissary cutbacks draw criticism

The ink had barely dried on President Barack Obama's proposed 2015 defense budget Tuesday when resistance to cuts in benefits for military members and their families began to surface.

The same day the budget was presented, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner filed legislation to block the Pentagon's plan to cut more than two-thirds of the $1.4 billion subsidy it provides to military commissaries.

Military leaders acknowledge that the $1 billion reduction, over three years, would likely raise prices at many of the 243 commissaries, where active-duty families and military retirees can buy groceries and household goods tax-free. But they say fiscal pressures driven by automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, require them to divert the money to what they consider more pressing needs: training and readiness.

Overseas commissaries -- there are about 70 of them -- and those in remote locations in the United States would still be subsidized.

Warner said slashing the subsidy puts an unfair burden on service members.

"Especially for young military families, retirees, and reservists who are trying to make their tight budgets work, these cuts represent real money -- as much as $3,000 in grocery savings per year," the Virginia Democrat said.

His bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, would postpone any decision on subsidy reductions until after a special commission analyzing military pay and benefits completes its work next year.

Fast-rising personnel costs over the past decade prompted Congress last year to set up the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission to review pay and benefits and propose changes. Its final report is due in February.

Locally, the commissaries have a big draw. More than 100,000 Hampton Roads residents and their families are eligible to shop at five locations. The commissaries at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach and Langley Air Force Base in Hampton were the fourth- and 10th-busiest in the country last year.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and U.S. Reps. Scott Rigell of Virginia Beach and Randy Forbes of Chesapeake -- all members of their respective chambers' armed services committees -- also spoke out against cutting commissary funding.

"We're a nation still at war and we must continue to support our service members and their families in every way we can," Kaine said in a statement.

Forbes said the cut would be "breaking faith with our military families."

Obama's budget would hit the wallets of military families in other ways, too. The Pentagon wants to gradually trim the housing allowance paid to service members by 5 percent.

Health care would cost more, too: The budget levies new fees and calls for higher copayments from family members and retirees for some medical care and prescriptions.

Defense officials estimate that a military family of four that now pays 1.4 percent of its medical expenses would pay 3.3 percent if the changes are approved.

Warner said that while his bill focuses on commissaries, he expects the other measures will draw fire, too.

Kaine indicated he wants the commission to complete its work before any changes are made to military benefits.

That's the approach the Military Officers Association of America plans to take, as well. Mike Barron, an executive at MOAA, said Wednesday that the 400,000-member organization and several other veterans groups plan to press Congress to wait for the commission to finish its work.

The group is focused on sustaining existing benefits, he said.

Veterans flexed their lobbying power recently when they flooded Congress with emails, phone calls and letters protesting a cut in cost-of-living pension increases for working-age retirees. Veterans successfully argued that the reduction, made as part of an overall budget deal in December, unfairly singled them out.

"Our muscle is numbers," Barron said. "We don't have money. We don't have PACs."

Warner and Kaine said changes to military compensation should be part of a broader discussion about government spending -- not solely an element of the Pentagon budget.

Warner has argued that Washington needs to control deficit spending through a combination of targeted cuts, new tax revenue and changes to Social Security and other entitlement programs.

"Why do we keep singling out the military to get hit first?" Warner said.

 bill.bartel@pilotonline.com

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