Thursday February 10, 2011 | 01:39 PM

This afternoon will feature the year’s opening Capitol Hill battle in Rep. Chellie Pingree’s ongoing attempt to persuade – or perhaps try to force – the military to keep open the commissary on the grounds of the soon-to-be-closed Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The facility is being turned over to a civilian redevelopment authority even before the base formally is closed Sept. 15. But Pingree, D-1st, wants the commissary to remain open and run by the Navy, saying it is a vital place for retired and active duty personnel in the region to shop for discounted food and other items. 

Pingree intends to question Joseph H. Jeu, director and chief executive officer of the Defense Commissary Agency, about the issue, at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel. The hearing starts at 2 and is being streamed live from: armedservices.house.gov.
 
Pingree helped win a provision last year in a defense bill mandating that the commissary stay open until at least Sept. 15. However, she also helped win a requirement that the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, conduct a study of whether the commissary should remain open – and mandating that the secretary of defense wait on that study until deciding whether to close the commissary.
 
The entire Maine delegation backs keeping the commissary open, and like Pingree on the House side, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, sits on the armed services committee in the Senate.
 
No one expects the military to give in today to Pingree’s arguments for keeping the commissary open. But Pingree vows to keep at the effort and to try to win a provision keeping the commissary open as part of this year’s defense authorization bill if the military doesn’t change its mind. She also is hoping the GAO findings will come down on the side of maintaining the commissary.
 
There is a cost to taxpayers for operating the commissary, though proponents of keeping it open maintain the base store is a profitable venture.
 
Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said the reason Pingree is fighting to keep it open is because the defense department itself has found that the “average commissary shopper saves over 30% on their grocery bill, which translates into a savings of about $4,400 annually for a family of four.  This is a benefit that both active duty and retired military personnel deserve,” Ritch said.
 
The commissary is actually made up of two stores: the grocery store part located at the Topsham annex of the air station and the department store part located at the actual base in Brunswick.
 
(Update and clarification as of 3:20 p.m.: the “commissary” in Topsham sells groceries while the part on the base in Brunswick is called, formally, the “exchange.” Pingree’s office said the effort to keep the commissary going would result in a combined commissary/exchange in Brunswick.)
 
Pingree in the past has talked to the top official at the Pentagon about the issue: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, her office says.
 
Until Pingree helped win the provision in the defense bill last year, the commissary was slated to be closed in March.

 

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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