Monday, July 13, 2009

Legislative Update - July 2009 by LTC Lee F. Kichen

BATTLING INSIDE THE BELTWAY: Federal Legislative Update

VFW State Commander Tells Congress to Leave VA Health Care and TRICARE Alone-In a letter to the Florida delegation of the United States Congress, Department Commander Stephen Surface urged the Senators and members of the House of Representatives leave VA health care and TRICARE out of a national health care reform package. Surface wrote: “Military health benefits provide an essential offset to the extraordinary demands and sacrifices inherent in a military career. Unique and specialized VA programs acknowledge special government responsibilities to those who incur service-caused injuries and illnesses. Each is critical in sustaining a career all-volunteer force, and subjecting them to taxation would be a major erosion of benefits that would undermine recruiting, retention, and national security.” We believe that VA health care should continue as stand alone and untaxed programs rather than be absorbed by some ill-defined national health care system. To do so would fail to recognize the government’s special responsibility to the active, reserve and retired military members and veterans and their families.

Advanced Funding for VA Health Care Continues to Make Progress-Advanced funding for the Veterans Affairs Department moved a big step forward, when the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MILCON/VA) while considering the 2010 appropriation agreed to set aside $48 billion for 2011 veterans’ health care costs.

This action represents the latest step towards achieving the VFW number one legislative priority of ensuring predictable and continuous funding for veterans’ health care. Only once in the last nineteen years has The Congress completed this all important appropriation on time. Before advanced funding becomes a reality, lawmakers must work-out final details like how much money needs to be set aside to cover a budget one year in advance including cost estimates and a procedure for making adjustments if the estimates are wrong.

In other action, the MILCON/VA subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., approved a $133.8 billion funding bill on Monday, including $23 billion for military construction, $53 billion for veterans’ health care and administrative programs and $55.8 billion in mandatory spending, such as veterans’ benefits. The 2010 spending is about $440 million more than the Obama administration had requested.

“We have done our best to address both the needs of the military and our veterans in this legislation,” Johnson said in a statement. “I remain committed to keeping our promises to our veterans and honoring them by ensuring they receive the care they deserve and require.”

Advanced funding includes $37.1 billion for medical services, $5.7 billion for medical facilities and $5.3 billion for medical support, money that would become available on Oct. 1, 2010, which is the first day of fiscal 2011.

The House version of the 2010 veterans funding bill includes a placeholder for a 2011 advanced appropriation but does not provide a specific number while waiting on the Obama administration to make 2011 budget estimates.

House Adopts “Light” Concurrent Receipt Measure-When the House Armed Services Committee did its “mark-up” of the FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act we were very disappointed to learn that it did not include the Obama’ Administration’s proposal to expand Concurrent Receipt of Military Retirement Pay and VA Disability Compensation to disabled military retirees with less than 20 years of service.

However, after considering through nearly 70 amendments, the House voted overwhelmingly (389-to-22) on June 25 to approve its version of the FY 2010 Defense Authorization Bill (HR 2647). With respect to Concurrent Receipt there is “good news” and “bad news”. One of the most important floor amendments was offered by Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO), to phase out over five years the disability offset to military retired pay for service members retired for disability (Chapter 61).

The first three years of the five-year phase-out would end the offset for more severely disabled Chapter 61 retirees with less than 20 years of service:

  • On January 1, 2010, Chapter 61 retirees with less than 20 years of service and a VA rating of either 90% or 100%, or who are deemed “unemployable” by the VA, would become eligible.
  • On January 1, 2011, Chapter 61 retirees with less than 20 years of service and a VA rating of either 70% or 80% become eligible.
  • On January 1, 2012, Chapter 61 retirees with less than 20 years of service and a VA rating of either 50% or 60% become eligible.

Over the following two years, the offset would be eliminated for all remaining Chapter 61 retirees:

  • On January 1, 2013, Chapter 61 retirees with a VA rating of either 30% or 40% will become eligible.
  • On January 1, 2014, Chapter 61 retirees with any VA rating become eligible.

The bad news is that House leaders were able to identify funding only for the first increment in 2010. Congress would have to come up with additional funding by Oct 1, 2010, or the program would expire. In reality there is little chance of Congress letting this high-profile initiative (which was generated by President Obama) lapse.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, expressed his support of the bill but said the House “could have done so much more.”
We couldn’t agree more with Mr. Wilson.

TALLAHASSEE TALES: State Legislative Update

Veterans of Foreign Wars Adopts State Legislative Priorities for 2010-The 2009-10 Department Council of Administration met for the first time immediately after this year’s convention in Orlando on June 21 and adopted, on a voice vote, the following legislative priorities:

1. Legislation asking the people to amend Article VII, Section 6 (e) of the Florida Constitution eliminating the pre-service Florida residency requirements for the “Combat Related” ad Valorem tax exemption. Last year, the COA adopted similar language as well as language seeking an Ad Valorem exemption for members of the Armed Forces receiving hostile fire or being in imminent danger. The 2009 Regular Session of the Florida Legislature adopted a resolution amending the Florida Constitution allowing an Ad Valorem exemption to all service members deployed overseas. This resolution will require approval by 60% of the voters in the November 2010 General Election. Senator David Aronberg (D-West Palm Beach) and Representative Doug Holder (R-FL)

2. Legislation authorizing charitable organizations to utilize electronic or other mechanical devices to dispense “Instant Bingo” cards. During the Regular Session of the 2009 Florida Legislature, we secured language authorizing machines in the Senate version of a gambling bill. However, the House did not have language authorizing the use of machines. We expect Senator Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey) to once again sponsor this bill in the upper chamber, we should work the House leadership to gain support for this measure.

3. Legislation providing for the sale of a Veterans of Foreign Wars distinctive license plate with the proceeds of sales accruing to the Department of Florida VFW Foundation. House Transportation Committee Chairman, Representative Rich Glorioso, late last session invited the VFW to submit language for his review. Attached hereto is a copy of that language.

4. Legislation granting Congressionally Chartered veterans service organizations an exemption from the Department of Agriculture administrative solicitation fees. Last session we were unable to gain any support for this legislation given the fact the Legislature looked at raising most state fees as a means of raising revenue.

5. Legislation granting equal treatment for wartime veterans in the state retirement system. Senator Aronberg intends to reintroduce this legislation in 2010. A potential House sponsor is Representative Maria Lorts-Sach (D-Delray Beach). Ms. Sachs was the driving force behind the VFW Legislative Priority expanding veteran’s preferences for State and Local jobs.

Recommended County, Municipal and School District Legislative Priority

Local ordinances establishing preferences for disabled veteran owned businesses bidding on county, municipal and school district contracts.

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