2008-05-28 / Features

Congress, NY Senate Propose Iraq, Afghan War Vet Benefits

BY JOHN TOSCANO

American servicemembers on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and veterans who served in those theaters, were remembered in Congress and the New York state senate in New York this Memorial Day as Congress passed 11 bills enhancing veteran benefits and the state senate introduced a package of legislation that would provide greater benefits also.

Congressmember Joseph Crowley, announcing unanimous House passage of the 11 bills, said they would provide tax relief for active duty personnel and improved health care and benefits for veterans' families.

On the state level, Senator Serphin Maltese said the bills introduced would, if passed, provide better access to education, healthcare and mental health services, job opportunities, and support for servicemembers' families.

Crowley (D- Queens/The Bronx), who as a member of the Ways & Means Committee had a direct hand in giving first passage to the legislation, stated:

"Together, these bills will provide our military families with needed tax relief, expand homeownership opportunities, and improved access to healthcare. The package also builds on the critical reforms and investments begun by Democrats last year when they passed the GI Bill for the 21st Century for the returning men and women of the armed services. With the Democratic Congress leading the charge, we are taking the country in a new direction for veterans and our military."

Crowley added that passage of this package comes on the heels of the House's consideration last week of the GI Bill for the 21st century, which recreates the education benefits available after World War II for returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Included among the bills was the Heart Act (Heroes Earning Assistance and Relief Tax Act), which makes changes to the U.S. tax laws that currently are skewered against our military, Crowley said.

Specifically, the lawmaker said, the Heart Act would

•Clarify that active military who file a joint tax return would be eligible for the stimulus rebate payment even if the spouse does not have a Social Security Number;

• Make permanent the ability to include combat pay as earned income for purposes of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC);

• Make permanent the expiring Internal Revenue Code provision that permit active duty reservists to make penalty-free withdrawals from retirement plans;

• Provide a tax credit for small employers with respect to differential wage payments to employees who are on active military duty;

• Extend current law excise tax for failure to comply with the mental health parity requirements for benefits for services furnished on or after the date of enactment through December 31, 2008, and

• Ensure fairer treatment of military families with disabled children who depend on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments.

The House also passed legislation to provide a cost of living increase (COLA) for veterans' disability benefits and to dependency and indemnity compensation for veterans' families, equal to the COLA adjustment made annually for Social Security payments, as well as legislation to expand and improve healthcare services available at the VA targeted towards our returning veterans suffering substance use disorders.

These bills will now go to the Senate for consideration and then to the president for his signature.

Maltese (R-C, Middle Village), a Korean War veteran, said that, besides the package of bills introduced, the senate would pause for a National Moment of Remembrance on Memorial Day at 3 p.m. to recognize and honor the sacrifice made by the brave men and women who have given their lives while defending this nation.

"Our veterans and their families have made so many sacrifices for our country and our freedom," said Maltese, who serves on the senate Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs. "When they return, it is our responsibility to provide them with the necessary tools to secure a solid foundation for their future."

The legislation builds on the senate's ongoing efforts to provide assistance and benefits to New York's veterans and active military members, including the innovative Patriot Plan, which provided numerous benefits to our service men and women fighting the War on Terror.

This year's state budget included $4.5 million to provide tuition assistance for veterans enrolled in an approved graduate, undergraduate and vocational program. Veterans' tuition assistance was increased from $2,000 per year to $4,350, allowing veterans to attend a SUNY or CUNY school tuition-free. If a veteran chooses to attend a private school, they will receive the equivalent towards their education costs.

Veterans enrolled in part-time studies will receive a pro-rated amount. In addition, the enacted budget expanded the eligibility for this program to cover all veterans who served in the Armed Forces in any hostilities since 1961.

In addition, the senate also created a Task Force to study the implementation of a program to allow SUNY and CUNY to accept military courses for college credit.

"As a Korean War Veteran and former chairman of the senate Veterans Committee, I believe it is vital to assist our soldiers returning from duty and award their courageous sacrifices and the valiant contributions they made to our country," said Maltese. "My bill recognizes that soldiers often acquire valuable and substantial knowledge while serving in our military and should be allowed to receive college credits towards a degree program. This in turn will help them complete their higher education and pursue a successful career."

Included in the senate's veterans' package is legislation that would:

•give preference to service disabled veteranowned small businesses with respect to state contracts,

•provide a tax credit to businesses that hire disabled veterans and veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and

•allow members of the armed forces to take special military makeup civil service exams.

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