April 26, 2008 – Judging by sheer numbers alone, this is most definitely the Year of the Veteran at the state Capitol. There are 122 bills introduced this session in the Senate and 83 in the House dealing with or mentioning veterans in some way. That’s 205 for the simple-math-challenged like me.
“I would have to agree and say that the (number of bills) is a bit higher this year,” says Tim Michaels, a veteran and chief administrator for the Senate Agriculture and Veterans Committee, which is conducting the bulk of hearings on veteran-related bills.
Says Jerry Kyser, a Vietnam War combat vet from St. Paul and chairman of the United Veterans Legislative Council of Minnesota, “We’re the buzzword right now.”
Credit the ripple effects of the largest deployment — and subsequent redeployment — of Minnesota troops since World War II. Credit a nationally recognized and much-modeled homegrown “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon” campaign addressing the reintegration needs of returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
Veterans are about as sizzling hot and in high demand in political circles as a Hannah Montana concert ticket is with the nation’s prepubescent crowd. Check out Congress, which is flooded with more than four times the number of veteran bills than their Minnesota counterparts are dealing with this year.
The avalanche of bills ranges from the basic “no-brainers” — as Kyser calls legislation to designate special days or Silver Star or Bronze Star special license plates — to the more substantive targeting of the health care, education and employment of old or newer returning combat veterans.
The following is a sampling of the bills passed or working their way through the Legislature this year:
Vietnam Veterans Day designated as March 29. It was passed and summarily celebrated for the first time in Forest Lake this year.
Korean War Armistice Day passed and designated for July 27.
Free lifetime state park permits for disabled veterans.
Veterans Outdoor Reintegration Act of 2008 adopted, providing lifetime hunting and fishing licenses to eligible veterans without fees, and appropriating money.
Resident student definition expanded to include the spouse and children of a resident veteran for purposes of determining eligibility for state financial aid for higher education.
Minnesota GI Bill program for veterans established, and money appropriated.
Veterans Day paid day off provided to veterans employed by school districts; Veterans Day educational instruction required; and private employers encouraged to grant paid holiday to veterans.
A proposed expansion of community-based services for veterans who want to receive care at home or in less-intensive facilities than nursing homes.
A so-called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) bill that would require the criminal-justice system at the onset of a combat veteran’s arrest for a nonviolent offense to consider alternative treatment or sentencing if the violator suffers from such an ailment or other combat-related affliction.
“It’s not a free pass,” stresses Brock Hunter, a veteran and defense attorney. “It’s an attempt to persuade the court to consider alternative sentencing methods rather than incarceration in some cases.”
Hunter expects that the proposed legislation, attached to omnibus offender re-entry bills under consideration in both houses, will pass.
“Some people think this is giving defendants a pass,” Hunter says. “It just gives judges more information to consider in order to make a determination whether someone who has served our country deserves treatment rather than incarceration.”
STATE VETS HOME GOES WANTING
Although appreciative of the floodlight on veterans-related concerns and issues, Kyser and others caution against equating quantity with quality or effectiveness.
“There are people on both sides who use the veteran but in the end don’t walk the talk,” Kyser says.
One major bone of contention he and others raised was the defeat of more than $26 million in bonding legislation to demolish a condemned building within the 51-acre state veterans facility in Minneapolis and build a modern care center.
The proposal was part of several construction projects — including the Central Corridor light-rail initiative — that bit the dust as part of a political clash between the DFL-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty and key legislators were negotiating possible restoration of the care center and the Central Corridor funding through the weekend.
The issue centers on Building 9, a more-than-70-year-old structure within the complex that housed mostly veterans afflicted with mental health or substance-abuse problems.
The building was declared a health and safety hazard and condemned by federally contracted construction engineers months ago, and about 50 veterans were displaced to another facility or sent to area nursing homes or relatives.
The $26 million proposal was eliminated in a dispute between Pawlenty and lawmakers in paring more than $200 million in proposed state bonding.
“Frankly, that was disappointing,” says Gil Acevedo. The recently appointed deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs was put in charge by executive order to oversee such facilities throughout Minnesota.
Which brings us back to Hannah Montana. Legislators recently passed a measure to prevent ticket gouging for such popular events.
“The displaced vets in (Building 9) were essentially thrown under a bridge,” Kyser says.
“Just because the word ‘veteran’ appears in some bill, it doesn’t really mean anything,” Kyser says.
“We have made some progress, and I applaud that,” Kyser says. “But I agree with you. Some legislators are using veterans for political gain. It’s easy to come up with a bill.
“It’s hard to carry through on the bigger issues,” he adds. “I’m optimistic. I want Minnesota to be more veteran-friendly. But I feel it’s still behind the curve. There’s enough blame to go around with both sides here on this.”