Two Orange County state lawmakers joined their competing bills Tuesday, clearing the way for the state to study a new site for the county’s first veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
While the focus was on putting a cemetery in Irvine for nearly a decade, efforts largely burned out after years of debate and political gridlock, with nearly all the county’s veterans groups now hoping to build the cemetery at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim Hills.
But for the last six months, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva and state senator Tom Umberg have repeatedly clashed over whose legislation will spearhead creating a state veterans cemetery in Orange County.
Their bills would let the state officially recognize the Gypsum Canyon site as an option, and open the path to getting the site studied by the state Department of Veterans Affairs, the first step before any construction can begin.
While they hosted nearly identical bills, the two were unable to agree on which one should be the primary vehicle for the cemetery’s construction.
Last Friday, Quirk-Silva, multiple county supervisors and veteran leaders called on Umberg to pass her bill at a press conference at Heroes’ Hall.
On Tuesday, Umberg was added as a co-author to Quirk-Silva’s bill, hours before it was set to be heard by the state senate’s committee on Military and Veterans Affairs, which Umberg sits on.
The entire committee voted to approve the bill, except for Senator Shannon Grove, who was absent.
Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and one of the longest supporters of the cemetery movement, praised the passage of the bill as another step in the right direction.
“It was very heartwarming to see that we are moving forward up the hill and the dreams of veterans and gold star mothers are now closer within our reach,” Berardino said in a Wednesday morning phone interview.
In a phone interview after the meeting, Quirk-Silva said it was a “relief,” to get the bill passed, and that the primary issue between her bill and Umberg’s bill had been over who would pay for the study of the site.
“I’m really pleased that Senator Umberg and I could get to a place where we’re both supporting this bill,” Quirk-Silva said. “We feel like we can at least envision very much the next pathway to get this moving forward.”
The final draft of the bill stipulated that the county government, which has already pledged $20 million to the site, would pay for the study, a pledge the county supervisors have made for months and publicly reaffirmed at their Tuesday morning meeting.
“We will pay. We will reimburse the state if that’s the vehicle the state needs,” said Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner. “We will honor that commitment.”
The total amount set aside for the cemetery is $40 million, split between the county and the state budgets.
When asked about a timeline toward the cemetery’s construction, Quirk-Silva said she hoped to see it open by the end of 2023 or in early 2024 barring any “unforseen hold ups or delays.”
“After 10 years, two years seems very reachable,” Quirk-Silva said.
During the senate committee hearing, Umberg thanked Quirk-Silva for her work on the cemetery, acknowledging her role in the effort since 2014, and said he hoped to see the study move forward quickly.
“There’s an urgency clause of this bill. The county has stepped up and indicated not only its willingness, but its eagerness actually to fund the study,” Umberg said. “I think this will move the ball forward.”
Umberg is now set to pull his bill before it reaches the Assembly floor according to members of Quirk-Silva’s staff.
In a statement, Umberg said he was “pleased,” everyone came together on the bill.
“I’m happy that I was able to work with Assemblymember Quirk-Silva to ensure there will be a thorough and thoughtful study, funded by the county,” Umberg said. “Many veterans and I have been working on this for several years and have seen why a careful study is needed.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.