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Bill would block commissary closings, cutbacks

Feb. 5, 2014 - 04:14PM   |  
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A new bill introduced in Congress would bar the Defense Department from closing or reducing the operations of commissary or exchange stores before Jan. 1, 2017.

The legislation, introduced Wednesday by Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., would protect individual stores and block any comprehensive plan to close all commissaries in the U.S.

The bill has 10 co-sponsors, nine Republicans and one Democrat.

As part of a broader cost-cutting review, DoD officials reportedly are exploring ways to reduce the annual $1.4 billion taxpayer subsidy for the military commissary system.

As Military Times reported in November, early discussions reportedly included an option to close U.S.-based commissaries while keeping overseas stores open. However, officials reportedly are focusing on options that would keep all stores open, but increase prices for patrons.

Further details on what DoD has in mind likely will not come into focus until officials unveil the fiscal 2015 defense budget request in early March.

“If there were no more waste in the Pentagon and we were left with this, then we could have a conversation,” Griffin said in an interview with Military Times. “We need to go after the waste and take commissaries off the table. That’s what this legislation is about.”

Griffin, an 18-year Army Reserve member, said he understands the value of the commissary benefits and believes it “contributes greatly” to the ability of troops to make ends meet.

Griffin said he also is concerned about the Obama administration making “unilateral” changes to affect the benefit, without input from Congress.

Sources said a proposal making its way to senior DoD leadership includes options for raising the 5 percent surcharge that customers pay at registers, increasing prices on individual goods in the stores, or both.

Raising the surcharge or selling commissary items at marked-up prices would require legislation. Griffin said he would not support either idea.

According to the most recent price comparison survey, which included prices at discount and big box stores, the average savings in commissaries is 30.5 percent.

Some contend that commissaries are no longer needed in the U.S., but advocates say it is an essential benefit that returns far more to troops and families than the $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars used to support the system.

Griffin’s proposed legislation defines closing stores as any action that would reduce the operating hours or size of a store below fiscal 2014 operating levels, or would change the location of a commissary or exchange.

His bill would prohibit the closing of any individual commissary or exchange in the U.S. unless a change in location or size is needed for upgrading or modifying a store for health or safety reasons. The bill also would prohibit the development or implementation of any plan to close all U.S.-based commissaries as a cost-cutting move.

Military veterans organizations are ramping up efforts to oppose any reduction in the commissary benefit.

“The American Legion supports this bill, and we don’t want the taxpayer subsidy taken away,” said Dean Stoline, deputy director of the legislative division of the American Legion.

Stoline noted that delegates to the Legion’s 2012 national convention unanimously passed a resolution opposing any efforts “to dismantle or downsize the Defense Commissary Agency.”

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