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Veterans review legislative priorities

The Park Rapids American Legion hosted a legislative update about veterans benefits on Aug. 3.

Leading the discussion was Trent Dilks, legislative director of Disabled American Veterans (DAV) of Minnesota. State Rep. Steve Green, Beltrami County Veterans Service Officer Scotty Allison and Hubbard County Veterans Service Officer Jerrold Bjerke also spoke up.

Dilks stressed that the proposed legislation for which he has been lobbying represents priorities set by not only the DAV, but also the statewide leadership of Paralyzed Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, and other Congressionally-chartered service organizations in Minnesota.

Bemidji veterans home

Regarding the Legislature's last session, Dilks said the initial round of state funding was allotted for three veterans homes in Bemidji, Preston and Montevideo. The next challenge, he said, is obtaining federal money without having anyone representing Minnesota on the Veterans Affairs Committee in either the House or Senate.

The current plan, Allison said, is to build a 72-bed facility to provide critical skilled-nursing care, hospice and long-term rehabilitation.

Allison noted that $12.4 million was earmarked from legislature and bonding money for Bemidji's veterans home. He estimated a cost of $43.7 million to build the facility, with 65/35 federal-to-state cost split.

Allison said fundraising efforts are ongoing to bring the state/local match to where it needs to be to ensure the project is funded. He predicted that if the proposal is submitted on time for the next federal appropriation and if everything follows on schedule, there should be a veterans home in Bemidji by May 2021.

Asked where the money will come from to operate the facility, Allison said it costs approximately $10 million a year to run the veterans home in Fergus Falls, with 50 percent coming from the state Department of Veterans Affairs and the other 50 from the federal government and private payers. He estimated it will cost the state $5 million a year to run the new veterans home.

Allison noted that if there aren't enough beds for a veteran needing residential care, Medical Assistance will pay for their care at another facility that may cost more.

Dilks estimated that a state veterans home costs $30,000 per veteran to operate, but contracting out for a bed elsewhere can add up to $150,000, and a bed in the long-term care facility in St. Cloud, run by the federal Veterans Administration, can cost $300,000 a year. He said this difference in cost partly explains why the federal government is willing to invest in state-run veterans homes.

Noting that the population of northern Minnesota is aging, Allison said the Bemidji veterans home "will be full as soon as it's open, and it will stay full for the next 40 years."

Predatory lending

Dilks said when the federal government made it illegal to assign veterans' disability income and spouses' dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) for loans, no punishment was put in place to enforce it.

What happened in Minnesota, he said, was that older veterans and surviving spouses were unknowingly signing over years' worth of their benefits for small loans at 300 percent or more. "It was predatory lending at its absolute worst," said Dilks.

A bill empowering the state attorney general's office to correct these abuses was introduced a year ago in the Legislature, Dilks said. The first time around, he said, "somebody attached something to it that made everybody hated." Following a veterans rally at the capitol, the legislators cleaned up the bill and passed it without opposition, and the governor signed it into law.

Property tax exclusion

A high priority that he didn't see done this year, Dilks said, was the property tax value exclusion for veterans' surviving spouses. Currently, the exclusion lasts eight years after the veteran dies or until the surviving spouse moves.

This year's bill, he said, would have allowed the spouse to transfer the exclusion once — for example, to move to a smaller, easier-care home — provided that the new home is of equal or lesser value. It would also have extended the benefit to the lifetime of the surviving spouse.

Dilks said the bill got "killed" at three different points in the lawmaking process. "We revived it," he said, "but every time I had to revive it, we had to give something up."

After the exclusion finally passed as part of an omnibus tax bill, the bill was vetoed by the governor, and so "it died its fourth and final death," said Dilks.

He argued that the measure will help surviving spouses of disabled veterans, who lose half of their benefits when their veteran dies.

"They leave their careers earlier," he said. "Their income over their lifetime is impacted. They become full-time uncompensated caregivers for our veterans. They see a reduction of 50 percent in their income. And now there's a clock ticking until they're going to face an uncertain property tax bill that only seems to be going up. We think that this is a way that we could create a benefit for the surviving spouses."

Dilks estimated that extending the exclusion would cost Hubbard County approximately $15,000 out of $34 million in annual property tax revenue.

"This is something that I think is really important," Bjerke said. "I don't know why the counties fight this. If we push people off their property, and that property goes tax-forfeit, they lose way more. In the long run, I think you're better off because you've got people who can't afford the increased property tax staying on that property and paying the existing property tax."

Bjerke urged veterans, when bills like this come before the legislature, to come to the capitol and lobby their legislators to pass them.

Outdoors

Regarding other legislative priorities, Dilks said, "We're looking at outdoors."

He noted that veterans in other sporting states have more access to hunting and fishing licenses than in Minnesota. "We think there is room to expand that," he said. "We have a great outdoors state. I think we can improve that access in a way that doesn't have a serious negative impact on the DNR's budget."

During the five years he has been lobbying for veterans issues, Dilks said, that has been unanimously supported by all the veterans service organizations in Minnesota.

Green said, "That has passed our committee a couple times, and then it disappears. It's common sense. I don't think we're costing the state anything by doing this, because eventually these guys aren't going to be able to hunt at all."

Considering the size of the DNR's budget, Green said, "They can do this."

Regarding how veterans can apply for these special licenses, Green suggested that the best way is online. "I know there are still some people who don't have access," he said, "but usually there are places you can go to get access, or even have a station at the courthouse where you could go online and do it. We'll get that worked out. We've just got to keep it moving."

Education, employment

Dilks said he was part of a work group to come up with a proposal to expand veterans' education benefits.

"If you go down to Alabama," he said, "the kids of 40-percent disabled vets are going to in-state colleges for free. I think we could get it to a few more disabled vets, so if they are 10, 15 years and the illnesses force them to change where they are going, we could provide them a benefit like that. But you would activate everything else first — vocational rehab, G.I. Bill, HUD jobs, Credit for Disabled Vets."

Dilks added, "We've done well on reducing unemployment of veterans overall, but there's a serious issue of under-employment. I still see a lot of veterans working two, three crappy jobs. I think there are ways that we could do better in, first, recognizing at the state level some of their trainings, and enticing them to give them a shot."

He recalled when he came back from Iraq being told that his experience as a machine gunner wasn't needed. "I went to see an employment rep, and he printed off every single minimum-wage factory job that was down in my part of southern Minnesota," said Dilks. "I also had skills that should have put me past loading pallets in a warehouse."

'We have an enemy'

Dilks said this year's Veterans' Day on the Hill rally in St. Paul, where 1,000 residents showed up, was the best turnout in recent memory.

He compared this to the protests that happen when a divisive issue comes before the legislature, such as gun control or abortion, and 8,000 to 9,000 people descend on the capitol for and against the measure.

"I think part of it is," said Dilks, "as a community of veterans and the supporters of veterans, we might not realize we have an enemy. There is somebody actively down there working against this property tax. Their association hires lobbyists. They get seats in. They have an effective way of getting people to show up and to make noise, and that counts for something down there. So, I think it's important we realize that we have an active opposition. We do need to be involved. We do need to be letting our representatives know."

Dilks also stressed that it is important to hold representatives accountable who have not stood for veterans when it mattered.

Asked how veterans can most effectively advocate for their position, Green said, "First of all, don't sign onto the bulk emails." He said that if someone wants to be sure their state legislator hears their concern, they should send a personal email or leave a phone message with the legislator's office staff, and get in touch again if they don't hear back within a week and a half.

'I love state issues'

Dilks recalled a veterans' advocate telling him he was wasting his time lobbying for the predatory lending bill. But within hours of giving a speech about the issue at last year's Veterans Day on the Hill, he heard from a legislative staffer that the bill was going to pass.

"I love state issues," said Dilks. "You can move the needle on these. You can get things to happen. That expansion to every widow receiving DIC in Minnesota went from idea to law in one session. If you want to change anything at the federal level, hold on for a decade and you might get a line in a bill somewhere. That moves so slowly. I love state issues, because you can make a difference quickly."

Green added, "It sometimes does take time, and you can't give up. A lot of the stuff that was passed has been worked on for years."

Bjerke said anyone with questions about state or federal issues can visit his office. He said his office provides transportation to the Veterans Day on the Hill.

Dilks said 12 busloads of veterans from Greater Minnesota came to St. Paul for last year's veterans event. "We really rely on Greater Minnesota veterans," he said, estimating that three times as many veterans come from outside of the metro, many of them traveling a considerable distance, than from within a 20-mile circle of the capitol.