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General assembly

Lawmakers push veterans’ perks

Bills seek to boost state’s appeal to service members

– On matters as varied as college tuition, property tax deductions, bidding preferences and parking privileges, legislation to help Indiana veterans has been abundant this season.

“This is the most we’ve done for veterans in a long time,” said Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City.

The progress appears to be related to the increased role the Indiana National Guard played in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as an alarmingly high unemployment rate of more than 20 percent for post-9/11 veterans. About a half-million veterans live in Indiana.

Lawmakers have backed away, though, from more significant – and expensive – changes to aid veterans.

“I think we need to strike a good balance,” said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. “Some bills don’t materialize because they go too far. We have to be reasonable and fair while honoring our veterans.”

AMVETS Legislative Director Ron Martin said he and other veterans appreciate the action this year, but he also noted that Indiana ranks at the bottom in the country for aid to veterans.

“Other states do a lot of things for vets that we don’t,” he said. “We have a pamphlet on state benefits. We need a book. We went 16 years with no veterans’ bills and now we are doing a bit better.”

James M. Brown, a retired Army command sergeant major and director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, did not return numerous calls last week on the issue.

Martin said nine bills had passed either the House or Senate by the legislative session’s halfway point, and several of those continue through the process.

But the legislation concerning the biggest priority for veterans didn’t move at all.

Several bills filed would have exempted all military pay from the state income tax. Some active-duty pay is already exempt, but a fiscal impact statement shows the state would lose up to $40 million a year in tax revenue if it took the exemptions further. A big chunk of the cost would be from retirement income.

Martin said other states with such an exemption have become a haven for veterans to settle in.

“We did a study on it to show by keeping veterans in this state by giving them the benefit, it would pay the state to have them here,” he said.

Martin is holding out hope it might be included in the budget, but House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said it’s not the right time to cut taxes for one small segment of the state.

“Every group of Hoosiers could make an argument for their program or need,” he said. “It’s all a balance. We try to support our vets the best we can.”

Indeed, lawmakers are looking for other ways to help.

Banks has offered Senate Bill 177, which would pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities for any veterans who decide to make Indiana home after discharge. The bill has passed both chambers, but because of a key discrepancy, it’s been sent to a conference committee for further consideration.

He said about a dozen other states have similar programs. Without the bill, veterans have to wait a year to establish residency.

“This is an opportunity to lure veterans to our state,” Banks said. “And these are the types of workers we want in our workforce.”

He acknowledged that colleges bear the fiscal impact – not the state – which makes it easier to pass.

Martin pointed out that if veterans settle in Indiana, they also spend federal benefits here, which contributes to the state’s economy.

Banks also is pursuing a bill widening eligibility for disabled veteran license plates, which earn veterans a discount on state park admission. It is awaiting a vote in the House.

Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, has Senate Bill 115, a combat-to-college program that requires colleges with at least 200 veteran students enrolled to make certain accommodations, such as having a program coordinator and office where veterans can go for financial aid, admissions and career assistance. The bill also would track which students are veterans.

It has cleared both chambers and is headed to Gov. Mike Pence for his signature.

“All we’re doing is trying to make sure we give them a hand up to make the transition easier,” Glick said.

Holdman’s legislation, Senate Bill 165, increases a property tax deduction for disabled veterans. Also, Senate Bill 563 contains a provision that anyone with a Purple Heart license plate can’t be given a ticket for staying too long in a metered parking spot.

Pence is also involved, pushing a state contracting price preference for veteran-owned businesses. The legislation also requires the Department of Administration to increase contracting opportunities for Indiana veteran businesses to at least 3 percent of state contracts.

Martin said 137 businesses owned by service-disabled veterans are currently registered federally in Indiana. And he thinks there are about 330 veteran-owned businesses in the state overall.

“Our Hoosier veterans deserve our full gratitude and support when they come home after doing their duty,” Pence said during his campaign. “This is especially true since Indiana has the fourth largest National Guard in the United States. Clearly, Hoosiers go above and beyond in answering their nation’s call to serve.

“Therefore, our call to duty for veterans should be the same as that of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, who said in his second inaugural address that we should ‘care for him who shall have borne the battle.’ ”

Pence also has pushed for easy access to vouchers for children of veterans who want to go to private school.

nkelly@jg.net

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