Kansas legislators, veterans clash on 'friendly' military license plate amendment
By TIM CARPENTER | The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan. | Published: April 13, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Republican Sen. Kevin Braun described his revision to House Bill 2246 as a "friendly" amendment not likely to stoke controversy.
Instead, it fueled a rare insurrection in the House.
Braun, a freshman senator from Kansas City, Kan., who served 32 years in the military, said the Legislature ought to limit the right to purchase the state's new military-branch specific Kansas license plate only to veterans receiving an honorable discharge or actively serving in the military.
His amendment would prohibit men and women earning the general discharge under honorable conditions – a grade down from honorable discharge – from acquiring a license plate recognizing service in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard.
"It means that person was given that discharge based on something that was less than honorable or could be derogatory in their service," Braun said.
The Senate accepted his amendment without debate, deferring to Braun's status as a retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who also served in the U.S. Army and the Kansas Army National Guard.
Rep. Richard Proehl, R-Parsons, had a different experience when he pitched the Braun-amended version two weeks later in the House.
Proehl, a lifetime member of Veterans of Foreign Wars, informed colleagues while opening House debate on the bill that he was willing to accept the Senate's preference on license plate eligibility. Initially, a majority in the House were ready to rubber stamp the deal.
That was before a bipartisan pair of veterans in the House – men with combat experience in Vietnam and Iraq – and the son of a combat veteran reshaped debate by denouncing the amendment crafted by Braun.
Dozens of House members were moved to change their votes, leading to rejection of the legislation on a vote of 7-114.
Rep. Jim Gartner, a Topeka Democrat who served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam, said the effort to disenfranchise Kansans receiving a general discharge at the conclusion of their service was unwarranted. A brief period of poor performance after years of solid soldiering is all it takes for a commander to apply the honorable condition tag, he said.
"This ought to be changed," Gartner said. "They ought to have the right to buy a military tag."
Rep. Chris Croft, an Overland Park Republican who served 30 years in the U.S. Army and deployed multiple times to Iraq, voted against the license plate deal in House Bill 2246. He recalled applying the general discharge under honorable conditions to personnel with problems that didn't fall to the level of dishonorable, bad conduct or other-than-honorable discharge.
"As a commander," he said, "many times what I would do if I had a young person who was doing a good job, they're a good person at heart, but they messed up on the personal side of things, rather than ruining their life or ruining their future, you'd give them one of these."
He said the idea was to create an opportunity for people to rehabilitate themselves and apply for an upgrade in their discharge status.
Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat and son of a combat veteran, said the amendment sponsored by Braun would punish individuals eligible for services through the Veterans Administration.
"This is an insult to our veterans," he said.
Rep. Les Mason, R-McPherson, was among seven representatives voting for the bill. He argued that other provisions of the measure were of such value the entire package ought to be approved.
He said the bill lowered the maximum payment to the state and minimum number of orders required before a distinctive plate could be issued. The bill created a "Proud Educator" plate, as well as plates honoring Alpha Kappa Alpha and Knights of Columbus.
"I feel like we're throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Mason said.
The Legislature returns to Topeka on May 1, and legislation not dealt with, including the license plate bill, could still be considered in the wrap-up portion of the annual session.
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