Omnibus shields commissaries from budget cuts in 2015

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Produce is on display at the commissary on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in 2012. (Rachel Larue/Department of Defense)
From Stripes.com
Produce is on display at the commissary on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in 2012. (Rachel Larue/Department of Defense)

Omnibus shields commissaries from budget cuts in 2015

by: Travis J. Tritten | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: December 11, 2014

WASHINGTON — Base commissaries are set to dodge budget cuts next year that threatened to reduce shopper savings thanks to a massive omnibus spending bill set for a vote in Congress this week.

The bill would pump $90 million back into the global system of supermarkets after lawmakers proposed trimming about $100 million from the commissary budget, according to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who helped craft it.

Commissary savings may be the only troop benefit on the chopping block to get a last-minute reprieve in the $1.1-trillion omnibus bill — Congress is still poised to reduce military pay raises, housing allowances, and Tricare prescription coverage, as well as eliminating on-base tobacco discounts in 2015.

The spending bill was likely to be approved during a House vote Thursday and a Senate vote Friday, heading off the possible government shutdown as current funding legislation expires, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who headed up the compromise, said Wednesday afternoon.

It will ensure troops, families and military retirees can continue to save what the commissary system says is an average of 30 percent on grocery bills by shopping at the 243 supermarkets on bases in the United States and abroad.

Durbin’s office said the funding was granted while Congress and the Defense Department await a commission study on military benefits expected to be finished in February and to become a guidepost for future reforms.

The stores cost the DOD $1.4 billion per year. The Pentagon wants to reduce that annual budget to just $400 million, closing some locations and eventually bringing savings down to about 10 percent.

Top brass lobbied Capitol Hill earlier this year to start with a $200-million reduction next year. Congress had met the Pentagon half way by reducing commissary funding by $100 million in its National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that sets defense priorities and is also up for a final vote in the Senate this week. Lawmakers anticipated the supermarkets could suck up the cut by being more efficient.

The omnibus bill restored enough money to keep operations at current levels, according to Senate staff involved with creating the legislation.

Meanwhile, the omnibus and the NDAA will push forward with other cuts in troop benefits.

Pay raises will be capped at 1 percent, down from 1.8 percent increases. Basic housing allowances will go from covering 100 percent to 99 percent of costs, while the military wants to eventually bring that down to 95 percent.

Troops also will be asked to pay $3 more out of pocket for Tricare pharmacy copays and will no longer be able to buy cheaper cigarettes and smokeless tobacco on military bases, meaning troops will have to pay about 5percent to 20 percent more, depending on the location.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten