In a vote of 148-0, the House on Tuesday unanimously gave its final approval to a measure that improves services for Maine veterans and provides tuition waivers to Maine National Guard members pursuing higher education at state schools.
“It’s been tremendously gratifying to see how the Legislature came together to improve the lives of Mainers who serve our country,” said Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, the House chair of a special veterans services commission, a member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and a Marine Corps veteran who sponsored the legislation that created the commission. “If we are truly going to do right by our veterans, we need to make a long overdue investment in Bureau of Veterans’ Services so it can keep up with their changing needs.”
LD 1612 boosts the marketing and outreach abilities of the state Bureau of Veterans’ Services so Maine veterans will be more aware of the services available to them and be better able to make use of them. The measure makes marketing and outreach core functions of the bureau and increases resources by hiring two hiring two mobile veteran service officers and implements an electronic records management system for an agency that remains heavily dependent on paper documents.
The bill also creates the position of homeless coordinator within the bureau who will be a member of the Statewide Council on Homelessness and directs the bureau to develop a statewide strategy to end homelessness among veterans. It also directs the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System to develop a set of best practices for helping student-veterans make the transition from military to student life. The work groups will report its findings, make its recommendations and make any request for resources to the Legislature in January 2017.
Additionally, members of the Maine National Guard will be eligible for tuition waivers at the University of Maine and Maine Community College system under the measure.
The veterans portions of the bill stem from the work of the Commission to Strengthen and Align the Services Provided to Maine Veterans. The tuition waiver proposal comes from LD 1343 from Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette.
The commission found that of the estimated 140,000 veterans in Maine, less than half are enrolled with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, meaning they are not receiving the federal health benefits and other services for which they may be eligible. The commission also found that Maine has one veterans service officer for every 20,000 veterans in the state, a ratio that is far behind that of other states.
LD 1612 also contains a proposal from Rep. Mick Devin, D-Damariscotta, a retired Navy commander, that provides a sales tax exemption to veterans’ organizations supporting post-traumatic stress treatment.
The bill faces further action in the Senate.