Candace Wheeler, Spokesperson, The Coalition to Save Our Military Shopping Benefits

Set the Scene

Background on what threats we faced historically, why the American Logistics Association (ALA) stood up the Save Our Benefit coalition, what the Coalition has been doing and what messages we have been sharing, what challenges we have faced recently, and where we are now.

Before joining the American Logistics Association, I worked as a Government Relations Deputy Director for the National Military Family Association (NMFA) for five years.

Championed commissary and exchange issues for NMFA.

Give Background: What Threats Did We Face?

Proposals to Consolidate the Commissary and Exchange are Nothing New

Various studies have been conducted over the years.

After spending millions of dollars, these studies all concluded that consolidating the commissary and exchanges, or the three exchanges wasn’t worth the squeeze.

Unfortunately, the findings from these studies have not precluded others from recommending or including consolidation in legislation.

Back to Black Report

Senator Coburn released a report in 2011 entitled Back to Black.

Outlined many ways the federal government was wasting money.

Recommended consolidating the commissary and exchanges.

Recommendation was not acted upon.

Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011

Proposed to provide hospital care, medical services, and nursing care for veterans and family members exposed to contaminated water over a 30 year span from 1957-1987.

To pay for the bill, Senator Burr included a provision that would have removed the appropriations for the Defense Commissary Agency, and consolidated the commissary and exchange systems.

The military community pushed back against the payer for this bill and consolidation.

Military and veterans organizations firmly supported taking care of our veterans and their families. But using the commissary funding as a way to pay for the bill would have eliminated this critical benefit for all service members and their families.

Although the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 passed the following year, the funding mechanism did not come from the commissary appropriation or through consolidation.

Why ALA Stood Up the Coalition

ALA sounded the alarm five years ago on the perfect storm that was about to impact the Federal budget.

ALA projected these pressures were going to have an immediate impact on the funding provided to operate the military resale system. They were right!

ALA created the Coalition to ensure service members, veterans, retirees, survivors, and their families have a voice in shaping policies that impact our nation’s ability to sustain healthy and vibrant commissary and exchanges systems, and to protect these critical earned benefits.

Became spokesperson, almost 4 years ago, to gain support for the Coalition.

Reached out to military and veterans service organizations, many of which were already championing commissary and exchange benefits. Encouraged them to join the Coalition.

Coalition is comprised of 22 organizations. Our Valued Associate members represent some of the largest, oldest, and most trusted military and veterans’ organizations in the country, and those representing our newest veterans and family members.

Save Our Benefit provides outreach and access to over 2 million service members (active duty, National Guard and Reserve, retirees, veterans), their families, survivors, people with disabilities, employees, and concerned citizens.

SMW and TAPS are both affiliated members of the National Association for Uniformed Services (NAUS), which has been instrumental in this fight.

The National Military Veterans Alliance (NMVA), co-chaired by NAUS and the American Military Retirees Association (AMRA) has been a tremendous ally. ALA and the Armed Forces Marketing Council (AFMC) are both members of NMVA.

The Coalition also works with The Military Coalition, American Legion, American Federation of Government Employees, the Teamsters Union, and grassroots organizations to help protect these valuable earned benefits.

What Has the Coalition Been Doing?

Individually and collectively, we have been educating legislators on the value and importance of commissary and exchange benefits, and the military resale system.

We send letters to Congress and policy makers.

Reach out to the media with press releases, op eds, and quotes.

Share messages through our respective websites, Facebook, and Twitter.

Send out Call to Action alerts to our members to reach out to their Members of Congress to urge their continued support for these critical earned benefits.

The Coalition is standing united to protect military resale benefits.

Increased advocacy, consistent and unified message.

ALA, AFMC, National Military Family Association (NMFA), and the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) – all Coalition members – testified before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in January 2016 to share our “Views on Commissary Reform.”

What Messages Are We Conveying?

We continue to message that these benefits are earned through military service and sacrifice.

Proposed changes to the commissary and exchange systems will hurt those that need these benefits the most, our junior enlisted troops and their families, and fixed income retirees to include survivors.

Ninety percent of the military community uses these benefits, which consistently rank as a top compensation benefit, yielding returns that far outweigh taxpayer support.

Commissaries and exchanges provide critical jobs for military families and veterans–over 60 percent of commissary employees are military affiliated–and nearly 30 percent are military spouses.

Provide healthy living alternatives both stateside and overseas.

Service members and their families are partners with taxpayers, having financed billions of dollars in facilities and quality of life programs.

Commissary benefit is more than a discount grocery store. The benefit is the savings they provide. If you reduce the savings, you reduce the benefit.

Simply put, it’s a pay cut for military families.

Cutting commissary funding will drive prices up. Military families will determine it is no longer “Worth the Trip.”

With less commissary foot traffic, the Exchanges will see at least a 30 percent drop in sales, which will impact critical Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) dividends.

Many worthy causes that receive funding through military resale will also be affected.

Study after study recognizes the value of these benefits and believes they are too valuable to be squandered at the budget table. Yet DoD continues to target the annual commissary appropriation as a cost saving measure.

Any changes to these critical benefits needs to be carefully considered, assessing a broad range of direct and indirect consequences, and upholding the promise made to our service members and their families.

We shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of military families.

What Are Some of the Recent Challenges?

The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, tasked with modernizing military pay, retirement, health care, and benefits, met for over two years. Gratified MCRMC final report firmly supported the value of the commissary and determined commissaries were worth preserving. MCRMC recommended consolidating the Commissary and Exchanges, which has not been supported by Congress.

The Administration’s Budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015 put forward a three year plan to drastically cut commissary funding by $1 billion, which is more than two-thirds of the 1.4 billion annual commissary appropriations.

The proposal was $200 million in FY15, $600 million in FY16, and $1 billion in FY17.

With support from many in Congress, we successfully restored the $200 million in 2014.

Last year, instead of the $600 million cut, the FY16 Budget proposed a commissary funding cut of $322 million. All but $30 million was restored to the commissary appropriations.

The FY16 Budget also includes language directing reports on:

o Making the commissary and exchange “budget neutral” by FY 2018, to be validated by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

o Privatization of commissaries and exchanges in whole or in part.

o Engagement of major commercial grocers or other private sector entities to determine willingness to provide discount savings on grocery products and household goods.

o Closing commissaries in close proximity to other commissaries or in locations where commercial alternatives are available.

o Price increases on products and goods at commissaries and exchanges.

o By obtaining the authority to apply variable pricing, DeCA would be able to implement private label within their stores. There are a lot of up front costs with private label. The complex actions and competitiveness of the private label business will require DeCA to invest significant resources (appropriated dollars) without a test to validate its cost/benefit. Also, industry currently stocks their own products, which DeCA would have to do for private label.

What Challenges Are We Facing Now?

Instead of the $1 billion cut to the commissary appropriations, the FY17 Budget includes a $221 million cut to the commissary funding.

We don’t know whether it funds the DeCA requirement going forward, whether it includes excess carry-over from prior years, planned store closures, etc., because we do not know the components of the reductions.

Track record out of the Pentagon over the past few years has been to cut the commissary funding without regard to the benefit.

After years of these cuts being rejected by Congress it now appears that DoD has recognized that reforms and efficiencies need to be placed ahead of cuts.

However, our concern is if reforms and efficiencies don't materialize as envisioned, military families will be left holding the bag on higher prices or reduced quality if and when these reform plans fall short.

Report on the Defense plan for budget neutrality for commissaries and exchanges, the pilots, etc. was due on March 1st. We are now hearing the report will be delivered sometime this summer.

Price increases on products in different localities does not take into consideration that military pay does not change based on where you are station. If you regionalize prices, you have to regionalize pay if you want to keep the benefit equitable.

More important than ever, we must continue to drive home the fact that the 30 percent savings needs to be protected.

ALA, the Coalition, and our valued associate partners will continue to educate policy makers on the value of these earned “quality of life” benefits, and the need to protect the critical savings relied on by our military community.

Janet Snyder

Legislative Chair, Society of Military Widows

(702) 227-6566