MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers announced Friday that he has appointed a former U.S. Navy captain to head the state’s troubled Department of Veterans Affairs.
Evers said during a news conference in Madison that he has picked Dane County Supervisor Mary Kolar to serve as secretary of the agency. Kolar spent 28 years on active duty in the Navy and has served as vice president of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Foundation’s board. She has represented downtown Madison on the Dane County Board of Supervisors since 2013.
Kolar inherits an agency struggling to fund veterans programs. Legislators have used tens of millions of dollars in surplus revenue from state veterans homes over the last decade to shore up the DVA’s veterans trust fund, an account that pays for veterans services and benefits. The account is funded mostly through revenue from loan repayments, federal grants and veterans museum sales, but loan repayments have been dwindling over the last 10 years.
DVA officials’ 2019-2021 budget request calls for shifting another $35.8 million from the homes to the trust fund. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo in September noted the transfer would place the homes in an $18.8 million deficit by the end of the budget in mid-2021.
What’s more, a 2017 state audit found that the home in King hasn’t been able to keep nursing positions filled, leading to a dramatic increase in overtime payouts. The audit came after The Capital Times published an investigation that revealed staff shortages, compromised care and a culture of retaliation at the home.
Asked during the news conference how he and Kolar would fund the trust account, Evers said there are ways to address it and that he was confident Kolar would solve the issue. He didn’t elaborate. Kolar appeared alongside Evers but did not speak about the issue.
State Rep. Ken Skowronski and state Sen. Jerry Petrowski, Republicans who lead the Legislature’s veterans committees, didn’t immediately reply to email and voicemail seeking comment on Kolar’s appointment. A message left with the Wisconsin AMVETS chapter also wasn’t immediately returned.
Evers also announced Friday that he picked Kathy Blumenfeld to be secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions. Blumenfeld, an accountant, currently works as an executive vice president of special operations with TASC, a Madison-based benefits administration company.
Evers also said he picked Brian Pahnke to serve as his state budget director. Pahnke is an assistant state schools superintendent who leads the Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Finance and Management. Evers has served as Pahnke’s boss in his role as state schools superintendent, a position he intends to relinquish when he’s sworn in as governor Jan. 7.