As America’s active military presence abroad begins to draw down and our troops come home, the financial and legal environment they face varies greatly from state to state. In Minnesota, our policies toward veterans haven’t always been a shining example for the nation.
Before I took office in 2007, I had 20 years of military service under my belt in the U.S. Army Reserve and had built lasting relationships with our state’s top military officials, Republicans as well as Democrats. Both of my twin sons are graduates of West Point, class of 2000, and entered our armed forces during a pivotal time in our nation’s history, to say the least.
Like the brave men and women I served with during my years in the military, today’s armed forces and their families make countless sacrifices that can never truly be repaid. From the perspective of state government, however, I believe we have an obligation to do more.
Developing veteran-friendly policies
With the help of other pro-veteran legislators across party lines, I began looking into how policies we make at the state Capitol in St. Paul can make life easier for veterans.
For years, these kinds of laws have been included in politically charged, partisan budget bills that made them hard for many to support. I joined a Democrat from the Minnesota Senate, Sen. Roger Reinert, and we began compiling the first-ever Veterans Omnibus bill (SF 1278/HF 1465), with dozens of provisions and millions of dollars in key funding to isolate these important topics and give them their own “fair shot” in the process.
We teamed up with an existing task force, the Military Action Group, and began meeting regularly during the legislative session. The MAG is a bipartisan coalition that includes representatives from state agencies and veterans service organizations, along with legislators, attorneys and others, working on veteran-friendly legislation.
Many of our soldiers are returning from multiple tours of duty and have significant challenges when they return, including employment, mental health, their military pensions, staying current on property taxes, and of course, senior health care when they grow older. Long term, our soldiers are much more susceptible to health issues and disabilities than the average retiring senior.
The number one health issue on the minds of returning veterans is jobs. Unemployment for veterans nationally is much higher than the general rate, but particularly in Minnesota, where as recently as 2010 it has exceeded 20 percent.
The reasons for lack of hiring vary. Some businesses worry that a vet may be deployed again while working, but the fact is these workers are very often the most loyal, dependable ones an employee could hire. Other hiring managers have concerns about the effects of combat stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Regardless, neither of these concerns are legal reasons to deny employment, so states have to do a better job of informing companies about discrimination protections already in place for veterans.
Minnesota has an opportunity to fill in funding for training where the federal government falls short. We successfully passed funding for safety personnel training and grants to local governments for “de-escalation training,” which teaches law enforcement how to handle high-stress situations with our veterans.
Vets are at risk of suffering physical and psychological after-effects from traumatic experiences that can culminate in injury to themselves, their families and public safety/law enforcement personnel. With this in mind, several lawmakers took on the difficult task of crafting legislation that would promote veteran hiring from multiple angles and finding co-authors.
One bill provided tax credits for businesses that hire a veteran, ranging from $500 for any kind of veteran, to $1,500 for an unemployed veteran, to $3,000 for a disabled veteran. The tax revenue from putting our 30,000 unemployed vets back to work would more than cover the up-front cost to the state.
But not all good policies have to be executed at the state level. For instance, our final budget package that passed into law last month contains funding for veterans service officer grants at the county level, where vets can access job services locally at a lower cost to taxpayers.
We targeted homeless veterans, a lesser-understood group, through the proposed creation of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, a group that would provide outreach to vulnerable vets in danger of becoming homeless. Providing services to these individuals early on, rather than waiting for them to develop other costly health and substance abuse problems down the road, results in long-term savings for taxpayers.
Another idea spearheaded by several lawmakers was to incorporate veteran hiring incentives into the contracts of large, public building projects, such as the $1 billion Vikings football stadium that will be constructed over the next four years.
Easing mortgage, tax burdens
While our soldiers are serving abroad, many of them face challenges keeping up with mortgage payments or property taxes, so we set out to change state law to require that lenders provide proper notice and that local governments allow an extended time frame for owed taxes to be paid upon the soldier’s return. The second provision was signed into law by our governor last month.
Many veterans reach their military retirement with many long years of life ahead of them. The pension income these retirees receive is an important lifeline for supporting themselves and their families, but is unfortunately still subject to income tax in Minnesota and a handful of other states.
Addressing this unfair taxation is discouraging retiring vets from settling in Minnesota and was a top priority for our Military Action Group this year. We offered several bills to exempt military pensions from income taxes, but they did not prevail this year. The authors remain dedicated to making this important change to our tax code in the future and inviting thousands more veterans and their families to our great state.
After retirement, many veterans require long-term care at safe, stable facilities that are increasingly crowded and underfunded. We secured funding to finish the Minneapolis Veterans Home using some state money to trigger significant federal funding in a joint project. Baby boomers nationwide will drive more demand for care facilities in the years to come.
Veterans issues bridge many traditional partisan and regional divides that other issues face. All of us know a veteran who could benefit from state policy changes — changes that take resolve and coalition building to accomplish.
State Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, represents District 39A. This article originally appeared in the June 2013 edition of “Stateline Midwest,” a publication of The Council of State Governments. Contact Dettmer at firstname.lastname@example.org .