Rep. Jerry Newton is no newcomer to Minnesota politics. He has twice served in the Legislature. But he admits he was naive when he thought he could mess with the veterans’ lobby to try to make changes in who is eligible to be admitted to the state’s veterans homes.

“The guys in the hats won,” said Newton, himself an Army veteran.

The Coon Rapids DFLer’s bill had one hearing before it was scuttled by House leadership, fearing repercussions from a very vocal group. Those would be “the guys in the hats,” who come to hearings with their VFW and American Legion hats on. They know that showing up is 99 percent of success.

Newton, a retired sergeant major with a 23-year career in the military, ran into a buzz saw over a proposal to give priority to limited space in the state’s five veterans homes. Former prisoners of war, Purple Heart recipients and veterans with a service-connected disability rating of 70 percent or higher would have moved to the front of the line. Spouses of veterans, who now have equal access to the homes on a first-come, first-served basis, would have been knocked down in the pecking order.

Newton thought it was a common-sense approach to a pressing problem: the rising costs of the veterans homes and limited availability to its services. Although there are only about 60 spouses in the vets’ homes, the cost of their care is about $5.6 million a year to taxpayers.

But after Newton’s lone hearing, he said he was told his bill would not be going anywhere anytime soon. He is convinced that if regular veterans were able to examine his proposal, they would support it.

“They went room to room. It was very apparent when I brought the bill forward in caucus there was major opposition,” he said. “They [caucus leaders] were concerned about the reaction in their own legion halls.”

Newton said he won’t give up.

“If people in this state are providing taxes to provide nursing home care to veterans then it should go to veterans,” he said. “I’ve got to find a way to work around these guys.”