LANSING — From property tax breaks to high school diplomas to expedited licensing for certain professions, 2013 is becoming a banner year for veterans in Michigan.
Nearly 20 bills giving veterans perks and breaks have been introduced this year, and $1.5 million has been added to the 2013-14 budget to better connect veterans to jobs once they leave military service. In addition, Gov. Rick Snyder created the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, funded with $4 million from the state and expected to grow from 12 to 40 employees by the end of the summer.
“I really feel that we’ve had a definitive change in the atmosphere in Lansing,” said Doug Williams, legislative director for the American Legion Department of Michigan. “These are necessary pieces of legislation to make it easier for veterans to get employment.”
Randy Soubliere, commander of VFW Post 4357 in Brighton, is encouraged by the increased attention but wary about the follow-through.
“This is way long overdue,” said Soubliere, 65, of Genoa Township, who is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. “But I’ve seen guys try to navigate the system to get what they rightfully deserve, and they didn’t get it before they died. All those hoops we have to jump through are designed to frustrate you to the point that you just throw up your hands and say ‘I give up.’ ”
The bills are designed to better connect veterans with jobs and make life a little bit easier for them overall.
Two bills already passed and signed into law this year will put a veteran designation on driver’s licenses and state IDs. The designation will create a database for service providers to connect with veterans to let them know what services are available. And it will make it easier for veterans to connect with deals at retail outlets that might offer veterans discounts on patriotic holidays such as Flag Day, the Fourth of July or other major holidays.
“There have been some stories in the past about gross domestic expenditures on veterans, and Michigan ranks really low,” said Mark Sutton, public relations director of the American Legion. “Michigan is 11th in the country in terms of numbers of veterans (about 680,000) and we rank near the bottom on providing resources to vets.”
The influx of veteran-related bills is due to a number of factors.
State Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, said the bill he sponsored, first in 2007 and then reintroduced this year, would allow communities to exempt property taxes for veterans who are 100% disabled.
He said his intent was born strictly from a debt of gratitude to people who have made the military sacrifice. But he realizes that election year politics might be driving some of the legislation.
“I do recall how our veterans who came back from Vietnam were shortchanged. There is an effort to make up for that shortcoming by those of us who did not go and did not serve,” he said. “But we’re hearing all the time of vets who have lost their homes, and I don’t want it to be for not being able to afford the taxes.”
Instead of taking up Anderson’s bill, however, the full Senate voted unanimously for a bill sponsored by Sen. David Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, that would require communities to exempt property taxes for 100% disabled veterans. Michigan has about 82,300 disabled vets, including 8,000 who are 100% disabled.
Snyder’s focus on veterans affairs also has brought more attention to the needs of returning soldiers.
“We have a very talented and adaptable workforce coming back,” said Jeff Barnes, a retired captain in the U.S. Army, Iraq war veteran and director of the new Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. “And we’ve got about 700,000 already here who haven’t connected effectively to the benefits they need.”
There also is a pent-up demand for services for veterans.
“We were kind of the forgotten child as far as the Legislature was concerned,” Williams said.
Other bills under consideration:
- A waiver of parks fees for certain disabled veterans and registration fees for veterans with prisoner of war, Congressional Medal of Honor or Disabled Veteran license plates.
- A high school diploma for Vietnam-era veterans who went into the services before finishing their high school education. World War II and Korean-era vets have the same benefit.
- A quicker and less cumbersome licensing process for veterans with military experience as emergency medical technicians, plumbers, electricians, builders and truck drivers, steam engineers and boiler operators and firefighters.
- State contract preference for veterans.
- In-state tuition rates for veterans at public universities and community colleges and a resolution that the U.S. Department of Defense reinstate tuition assistance for veterans.
Jim Hodgson, a Canton resident and a retired Vietnam veteran with the Army, said he was fortunate to come home without any injuries that need constant care. While he doesn’t need or want the extra perks, he said he believes they should be there for his military colleagues who came home wounded.
“A disabled veteran, with a small or large disability, has given to the country, and the country needs to give back,” he said. “Any time a veteran has been disabled, we all owe them.”
Although some of the bills won’t affect many veterans, the Legislature also has acted to fix some problems with existing services. In the 2013-14 budget, which Snyder signed Thursday, $3.1 million was added to address staffing concerns at veterans nursing homes in Grand Rapids and Marquette.
The new agency will use all the tools at its disposal — social media, websites and an increased presence in communities — to connect with veterans, Barnes said.
That’s great for the newest, more computer-savvy generation of veterans, Soubliere said, but he hopes the state realizes the Vietnam-era veterans might not be so computer literate.
“I’m good with a computer, but a lot of the people here aren’t,” he said of the post in Brighton. “There are a lot of veterans out there who have a hard time with all the paperwork.”
Not all of the bills are on a fast track to passage, but as veterans are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s politically difficult to vote against the military volunteers.
“I think with all the problems that the VA is having, the legislators see the plight that veterans are having and asking ‘Where can we cut down barriers for these guys?’ ” Sutton said.