Vets organizations desire to be heard by lawmakers

By Tim Engstrom

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Commanders’ Task Force, a body that meets monthly and pushes for veterans-related legislation, voiced their displeasure and frustration with lack of access to state lawmakers at their June meeting.

“I’m very concerned that other interests will take the day next year,” Robert Hart, legislative director for The American Legion Department of Minnesota, told lawmakers on June 16.

The CTF is made up of nine congressionally chartered veterans organizations, and the chairman, Paralyzed Veterans of America Vice President Todd Kemery, had invited House and Senate leadership to the June 16 discussion held virtually over Zoom.

Instead, District 39A Rep. Bob Dettmer, Republican and Legion member with Forest Lake Post 225, and District 3A Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFLer and International Falls resident whose Legion membership is with Crosslake Post 500, joined the meeting. Both serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Ecklund is the chairman.

Ecklund said every veterans-related bill went through the House Veterans Affairs Committee, then went elsewhere to die.

“This whole COVID thing just upset the whole apple cart,” he said.

The Legislature took a five-week hiatus when the pandemic restriction began in mid-March.

He said if there is a session in July — and now, one is expected, as Gov. Tim Walz would like to see a bonding bill passed — there is hope for getting veterans-related legislation approved.

Dettmer said the main piece of funding the Legislature secured was $6.2 million in COVID-19 grants for veterans financially impacted by the pandemic. (See story on Page 2.) Lawmakers also secured $250,000 for the Medal of Honor Memorial outside the Veterans Service Building in St. Paul.

He said the Legislature in June approved $62.5 million in grants for small businesses impacted by COVID-19, of which $2.5 million must go to veteran-owned businesses. Walz later signed the measure.

Dettmer said he hopes the Legislature can address issues such as adjusting the Homestead Market Value Exclusion so surviving spouses of veterans can do a one-time transfer of property to a lesser value, so they can live in a more manageable home. He said he wants to back veterans-oriented job fairs, recruiting access in college campuses and initiatives to reduce veteran suicides.

“We look to the CTF to give us priorities and awareness of veterans issues,” he said.

Veterans Restorative Justice Act

The main piece of legislation the veterans organization members said they would like to see get through the Legislature in July is the Veterans Restorative Justice Act, otherwise known as veterans courts.

It almost passed in 2019, dying in conference committee, and it has received bipartisan support, as well as support from the state Supreme Court chief justice and the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

Minnesota Management and Budget studied the bill and estimates it would save $1.3 million in the first two years.

It allows judges to withhold pleas and assign help for veterans facing criminal behavior that can be connected to combat and other service-based trauma.

The American Legion passed a resolution at the 2016 National Convention in Cincinnati approving the establishment and expansion of veteran treatment courts. Legion Posts often are instrumental in working with judges to help defendants with PTSD find veteran-specific treatment, too, as well as personal support.

It has existed in 27 counties as a pilot program started in 2008. The MDVA and CTF want it all across Minnesota as a regular part of the court system. There are zero upfront costs. It merely allows judges to take action.

Ecklund said the bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I worked the senators as hard as we could. It never moved in the Senate,” he said.

He said he was over in the Senate explaining it five times. He credited Dettmer for his efforts, too.

“Maybe we need to re-evaluate the bill to see where we are getting pushbacks,” Dettmer said.

Ecklund said no legislation is ever perfect.

MDVA Legislative Director Ben Johnson said legislators who want to appear in favor of something but are really against it, instead, will find fault with wording, rather than come directly out opposed. The VRJA has been altered already.

“At this point, it seems like a fishing expedition to find fault, to find reasons not to support it,” he said.

Dettmer and Ecklund suggested new strategies, such as using other legislators so they can get the political gain from supporting veterans legislation.

“Don’t bring the bills to the same old faces,” Dettmer said.

“I agree,” Ecklund said, “especially freshmen.”

They also suggested using their offices for meetings, rather than the Veteran Service Building, once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

They also suggested veterans statewide call the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee: Warren Limmer of Maple Grove.

His phone number is 651-296-2159.

In related news:

• Johnson and MDVA Chief of Staff Mike McElhiney reported the MDVA was able to get 236 homeless veterans off the streets to safety before the protests and riots occurred in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

• As of the Legionnaire’s press time on June 26, the CTF is nailing down a time to meet virtually with Gov. Tim Walz in July and form its specific request of him and other lawmakers for the July session. The VFW’s legislative officer, Tommy Johnson, said Walz promised during his campaign he would meet with the veterans on a quarterly basis. No meetings have since occurred since he took office.

• The CTF is forming its 2021 legislative agenda much farther in advance than the 2020 one, when it was done in December. This cycle, the body is hoping to solidify its platform in July and August, which gives it time to publicize the proposed measures through the fall and garner statewide support.

“The CTF is starting to grow some legs, it seems,” said Kemery, the chairman.