Few issues rouse anger like commissaries. Three years ago, military groups vilified Richard V. Spencer, a retired investment banker who sits on a Pentagon advisory panel, when he suggested closing the stores, which sell everyday items at a steep discount. The proposal went nowhere.
Now, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has stepped on the same rattlesnake by making changes at commissaries on military bases. Any change in the program comes at a time when military families are redeeming $100 million a year in food stamps.
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Last June, the Huffington Post reported, “Nearly $53 million in food stamps had been cashed in by people eligible to shop in base commissaries, including disabled veterans and others with military ID.”
Hagel has begun to make some of the difficult choices necessary to get the Pentagon’s budget under control. He’s shrinking the size of the Army, proposing reductions to heath and pay benefits, and slashing civilian jobs.
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From the Pentagon’s perspective, changes to the way commissaries operate are inevitable. There were rumors last month that DOD was going to close them completely. Under the spending proposal unveiled by the White House yesterday, DOD’s subsidy for the stores would drop from $1.4 billion to $400 million.
The cut is expected to be phased in over a number of years. If it goes ahead as planned, its impact would be steep: a Defense Commissary Agency study found that shoppers save 31 percent annually at the stores right now. The billion-dollar cut would lower this to 10 percent.
Military groups immediately blasted the plan.
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“As much as we’d like to pretend that Department of Defense leaders are dialed into what’s happening in boots-on-the-ground families, they’re not. We are. We know what our families can afford. They don’t,” Babette Maxwell, founder of Military Spouse Magazine and an advocate for service members and their families, told NBC News.
Maxwell might be worrying for nothing. Congress still has to approve the spending plan, and few lawmakers have been willing to make cuts that impact soldiers so directly.
In fact, the opposite has occurred. Over the last several years, Congress has repeatedly raised the money going to commissaries. According to the Washington Post, Congress approved the $1.4 billion allocated to commissaries last year without a single objection.
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