State lawmakers pass Veterans Restorative Justice Act
By Tim Engstrom
ST. PAUL — It was a rather successful year for veterans-related legislative efforts. The American Legion, along with other participants of the Minnesota Commanders’ Task Force, and the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, had a role in the passing of:
• Three new Minnesota Veterans Homes. Groundbreaking will be Aug. 19 in Preston, Aug. 23 in Montevideo and Aug. 26 in Bemidji, with a goal of being operational by spring 2023.
• A new Minnesota State Cemetery. The groundbreaking is set for Oct. 13 outside of Redwood Falls.
• The Veterans Restorative Justice Act. This sets standards for veterans treatment courts in Minnesota and gives combat-traumatized veterans in Minnesota access to the veterans courts if the county they live in doesn’t have one.
There are 13 counties in Minnesota with veterans courts. The bill also provides blueprints for establishing one, so there will be consistency across the state.
The bill was signed officially on June 30 and took effect as part of Minnesota criminal law on Aug. 1. A ceremonial bill signing took place Aug. 10 near the World War II Memorial on the Capitol Grounds.
“There has been a lot of work by a lot of people across several veterans organizations, from our people in the Legion to the legal community, and the MDVA. They all worked hard to bring this legislation back from the dead and make it front and center,” said Mark Dvorak, who just finished two years as Minnesota American Legion Department commander. “We are all glad this one got across the finish line. It will help veterans for generations to come.”
Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke said, at the Legion’s Department Convention, that passing the VRJA has been a major focus for several years, but it wouldn’t happen without the help of veteran service organizations.
Minnesota American Legion Legislative Chairman Bob Hart said many lawmakers deserve credit for passing this legislation, but kudos go especially to Sen. Andrew Lang and Rep. Sandra Feist.
• Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs was the only state agency to receive an increase in funding. Total appropriation was $24.4 million the first year and $24.6 million the second.
• This includes $1.65 million in the biennium for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs to provide coordination and collaboration on Minnesota efforts to prevent veterans suicide. Also, the state changed Veteran Suicide Awareness Day to be Veteran Suicide Awareness and Prevention Day.
• $6.33 million in the biennium to provide a mimic of HUD-VASH vouchers, mainly to help homeless veterans who are not eligible for federal resources. Herke said he hopes Minnesota becomes the fourth state to declare functional zero when it comes to veterans homelessness.
• $500,000 for a 9/11 Task Force to do a comprehensive analysis on the experiences of post-9/11 veterans over the last 20 years, with a recognition of their sacrifices at the State Capitol grounds on Sept. 11.
• $200,000 for two veterans camps: Big Marine Lake Veterans Campground and Vets on the Lake.
• The Legislature authorized the Minnesota Veterans Homes to offer adult day care and dental services.
• The Legislature OK’d a rate increase for personal care attendants. This was a labor field running short on staffing, and the PCAs do a lot to help shut-in veterans. The initial rate increase takes effect Oct. 1, with a 10 percent increase and will continue until FY 2022-23, when they will be at $19.60 an hour.
Much of this report comes thanks to Ben Johnson, legislative director for the MDVA, during the July meetings of the Commanders’ Task Force.
Paying taxes on disability?
Yes, it turns out Minnesota was the only state in the union requiring disabled veterans to pay taxes on their disability compensation.
The state didn’t collect it on income taxes either. It collected the money on the annual filing for property tax refund.
Trent Dilks, legislative officer for the Minnesota Disabiled American Veterans, worked with Sen. Jeff Howe, who brought the issue to his attention early in the legislative session.
What made the tax even more complicated is that VA does not issue an “earnings” statement. Vets had to calculate it.
The DAV argued, “Compensation is just that. It is meant to compensate.”
The result is the law is now off the books.
“It’s actually a big win,” Dilks said
On the gambling side, there are updates, too:
• Gov. Tim Walz appointed a Legion member to the Minnesota Gambling Control Board. Janet Lorenzo of St. Paul Park Post 98 fills the last vacancy available. Department Treasurer Bill Goede stepped down from the board last year. Lorenzo is the only person from a veteran service organization on the Gambling Control Board.
• An effort to remove e-pulltabs from charitable gambling died in conference committee during the special session. If this had gone through, there would have been a loss of $33 million in charitable giving, a loss of $35 million in wages and a loss of about $60 million that goes toward paying the stadium. If e-pulltabs don’t pay for the stadium bonds, the state is obliged to pay them from the general fund.
• An effort to alter the star-rating system got far but also failed to pass the Legislature. Some of these gambling issues are expected to return next year.
No finish line
Two areas where the Department of Minnesota and the CTF fell short this legislative session were:
• Reducing property taxes on Post homes to zero.
• Increasing the grant funding for veteran service organizations.
Update on Vet Centers
In May, VA Secretary Mike McDonough assured Legion member Phil Ringstrom that funding for a St. Cloud Vet Center is possible.
Vet Centers provide readjustment counseling to veterans and their families without the hassle of paperwork and other barriers.
The next step in this process is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 25, a meeting with Mike Fisher, the VA’s chief officer of regional counseling services, to talk about what the expansion process looks like.