After Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito painted a bleak picture of veterans home closures and burial fee increases at veterans cemeteries due to potential cuts, Republican legislative leaders accused Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday of using veterans as "toy soldiers" in the budget battle.

A Senate bill on state government would leave the Veterans Affairs Department untouched but a House version does not exclude veterans from the effects of possible 15 percent budget cuts.

The politics of veterans issues have always been among the most volatile at the Capitol and any threats to programs consistently bring out veterans groups in droves. Leaders of both Republican-controlled House and Senate committees lashed out at DFLer Dayton, accusing him of refusing to cooperate in budget negotiations.

"Quit using the veterans as political pawns in this budget process," said Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, chairman of the State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee.

Veterans Affairs Commissioner Shellito, who commands respect at the Capitol from his years as the adjutant general of the state National Guard, nonetheless was grilled on his predictions for a worst-case scenario of budget cuts during a conference committee Friday. Those cuts could include closing one of the state's veterans homes, increasing burial fees at the Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, the closure of at least one program and services division, and the elimination of the Bronze Star Marker program, which provides grave markers for vets.

In a letter to what he called "shareholders" on Friday, Shellito said both House and Senate bills call for across-the-board reductions that would amount to a $10.2 million reduction in the department's general fund base.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, chairman of the House State Government Finance Committee, said veterans and military affairs are the only parts of the state government budget that would get an increase. "The intent of the House is very, very clear," Lanning said at a news conference.

Earlier in the day, Dayton said the potential cuts to veterans underscores that "the effect of this all-cuts budget would be a very severe one."

Andrea Mokros, Dayton's deputy chief of staff, said Shellito's remarks reflect the realities of what the Republican-controlled Legislature's budget will mean to Minnesotans. A House version of the bill requires a 15 percent cut for all executive agencies, including veterans.

"This is not the governor's budget, it's their budget, their numbers, their proposals. It's their bill language that doesn't exempt veterans," she said.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434