Senators Present Bill to Save Commissaries

soldier in commissary

Several U.S. Senators have introduced new legislation to save funding for military commissaries in light of massive cuts to the program proposed by the Pentagon's fiscal year 2015 budget submission.

Senators Mark Warner, D-Va. and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. have teamed up to propose the "Military Commissary Sustainment Act," a new bill aimed at restoring funds for commissaries on military installations slashed in the Pentagon budget.

"I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation with Senator Warner to prevent these cuts to commissaries which come at the expense of our service members, veterans and their families on the home front," Chambliss said in a written statement. 

Commissaries, or government subsidized grocery stores on military installations around the world, offer service members and their families as much as 50-percent savings on groceries compared to off-base markets. However, commissary advocates say the Pentagon's proposed cuts will force many of them to close.

The military's five year spending proposal cuts the commissaries budget from $1.4 billion to $400 million by 2017. The reductions are incremental and start with $200 million in 2015 before going up to $600 million in 2016 and $1 billion per year from 2017 through 2019.

The Warner-Chambliss bill seeks to "prohibit the reduction in funding for the defense commissary system in fiscal year 2015 pending the report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission."

A non-partisan Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission is currently working on a comprehensive set of recommendations on military pay and benefits. The commission is planning to issues its final report in February 2015, according to a statement from Sen. Chambliss' office.

"These cuts to commissaries are an unfair burden on many of our military men and women," Warner said in a written statement. "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."

Typically, commissaries are allocated up to $1.4 billion annually to support operating costs and enable grocery stores to sell items with little or no mark-up. 

Advocates for benefits for military families are concerned the cuts will lead to store closures and adversely impact military families.

"We are concerned that prices are going to skyrocket. Prices for families will go up from 30 to 50 percent depending upon where they live. Families are going to be paying more. Families are going to lose value," said Candace Wheeler, spokeswoman for the coalition to save our military shopping benefits.

Wheeler also added that commissaries are not just grocery stores but rather part of military families' pay and compensation.

"If the prices are raised substantially and patrons are not reaping the savings that they have been reaping. Stores will eventually close because families will not go back to the commissaries to shop," Wheeler said.  

Commissaries also provide jobs to veterans and members of the military community, she added.

"Fifty-four percent of commissary employees are from a military community," Wheeler said.

"Compensation costs for the military go from $160 up to $180 billion per year. Why would you go after something that people value so highly and costs so little?" Wheeler added.

In addition, Wheeler explained the commissaries based in forward locations oversees would be hard hit as well given that the supply chain will lose economies of scale.

Earlier this year, Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ariz. also introduced legislation aimed at accomplishing a similar goal called the Save our Military Shopping Benefits Act.

"Our military men and women rely on commissaries and exchanges on base to be convenient providers of essential, affordable groceries for their families. Closing these stores -- which represent only three-tenths of one percent of the defense budget -- would be a poke in the eye to our Armed Forces, and DoD should find other ways to save taxpayers money," Griffin said in written statement.

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at kris.osborn@monster.com

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