Quick approval of VA hospital cheers Bennet

By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The big news in U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s weekly conference call with the local media on March 18, was the announcement of the new Veteran Affairs hospital, which will be built near Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora.

Bennet also discussed the AIG bonus scandal and the reprise of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act 2009.

Bennet opened by thanking Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, for ending nearly a decade of uncertainty about Colorado’s new VA hospital.

“Today is a wonderful day for Colorado and for our vets who have waited for a very long time — too long a time for this,” Bennet told reporters. “The shovels will start to move within 60 to 90 days, and the hospital will be completed by 2013.”

Bennet said more than 90 percent of Colorado veterans live within an hour of the VA hospital site.

Bennet said a request to Shinseki resulted in quick approval of plans for a stand-alone VA hospital at the Fitzsimons Army Hospital site.

“The fact that they responded within the first eight weeks shows how important this fight has been,” Bennet said.

The spotlight then shifted to the AIG bonus scandal. AIG Chief Executive Edward Liddy had answered questions from Congress on Wednesday regarding the bonuses awarded to senior employees, and Bennet tried to convey the gist of those answers to reporters.

“The actions of the people at AIG don’t reflect the lion’s share of the people working at community banks or local institutions,” Bennet said, assuring the media that Congress, too, wants to get to the bottom of the AIG affair.

“This issue has created a view that people in Washington don’t have their act together…. but nobody I know would have ever gotten a bonus under these circumstances, and we are going to exhaust every remedy to get this money back,” he said.

On March 2, the company received its fourth bailout in less than six months, giving it $170 billion in government bailout money thus far.

It was reported at the hearing that $165 million in bonuses went to the company's senior executives, with 73 of the bonuses topping $1 million.

Bennet said Congress needs to make sure “this foolishness doesn’t happen again.” He tried to stress that the people who follow the rules will benefit from the help the government has been trying to provide.

“There is nothing to compel the people who got the bonuses to actually take them,” he said. “I think the best thing to do is for the people to give the money back.”

Bennet also briefly discussed his support in the reprise of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act 2009, which failed to pass the House on March 11 by a two-thirds vote.

The act, if passed as reintroduced, would designate more than 2 million acres of federal land as wilderness, protect rivers and trails and give legal permanence to the National Landscape Conservation System.

“This is essential to the protection of open space, natural beauty and heritage in Colorado,” Bennet said.

“Colorado has waited a long time to see these laws passed, and I am very hopeful to get this passed in both the House and Senate this time.”

Beth@coloradostatesman.com