Veterans raise issues to legislators

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An official committee hearing of the Minnesota House State Government Finance Committee in Brainerd Thursday featured spirited discussion of veterans issues and measured discussion about the State Auditor’s Office performing county audits.

Before hearing concerns from local veterans during the hearing at the Crow Wing County Courthouse, committee member Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, provided an update on veterans-related legislation passed during the last session.

Legislation was able to streamline the process of getting veteran-owned businesses federally certified, Howe said. Now, completing the federal certification process automatically grants state certification, he said. The certification gives veteran-owned businesses an incentive when bidding on state project contracts.

“Hopefully adding that to allow the veteran-owned business kind of a leg up in the business process to get government jobs,” Howe said.

In order to help relations between law enforcement and veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, the Legislature provided $100,000 annually for de-escalation training for police officers in order to better understand how to deal with veterans, Howe said. The funding has also benefited how officers relate with other members of the public.

“What we found is that this actually helps address many other aspects of our public out there,” Howe said. “They may not be veterans, but now at least the police officers have a better understanding of what they’re dealing with.”

Crow Wing County Veterans Service Officer Bob Nelson said the local de-escalation training, done at Camp Ripley, has paid dividends for local law enforcement.

What still needs to be done is to find state tax exemption for veterans’ retirement, Howe said. There are only six states that tax veterans’ retirement pay, he said, and Minnesota is one of them. It’s created an environment where veterans who retire out of active duty don’t want to come to Minnesota, he said.

Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, retired from military service in 1997. He echoed the idea that Minnesota wasn’t a tax-friendly state for veterans when he retired and the situation hasn’t changed.

“Minnesota did not rank well and that’s a long time ago,” Lueck said. “And nothing’s changed.”

There should also be a property tax exemption for veterans’ service organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, Howe said. Those clubs are closing at a rate of 10 per year, he said, because they’re struggling to get younger veterans to join them. A proposed bill would reduce property taxes for those organizations by one-third for 10 years, because the problem won’t be solved overnight.

“Hopefully here we can get those younger veterans to join our VFWs and our Legions,” Howe said. “Get that membership up.”

Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, asked Nelson for his assessment of local veterans homelessness issues. Nelson replied it is an issue in the area, as there are housing options for family and women, but not much for single veterans. If a veteran’s support network is in Crow Wing County, he said, it’s hard for them to have to go to St. Cloud to finding housing.

Local feedback

After the committee opened the floor for comments and questions, a stream of local veterans shared their experiences with the legislators. The common theme was while current support is appreciated, there’s still more work to be done in taking care of veterans upon their return home.

Dick Ashmun said people who come out of military service have a good background and contribute much more to a community beyond their income. Michael Williams thanked the legislators for what they do for veterans, but informed them he’s considering moving out of Minnesota because of the tax burden.

Daryl Bahma told the legislators one way to bring veterans to the state would be to lower the taxes on license plates and new vehicle sales. Other neighboring states have much lower license plate taxes, he said. Responding to Bahma, Howe said he supports the idea, but in the current climate of transportation funding, it’s hard to cut fees which contribute to transportation funding without replacing it from somewhere else.

“If we put a bill together and we push that in the Legislature,” Howe said. “The question is going to come up, how do we fill that void?”

Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr., DFL-Crystal, said while other states might have lower license plate tab fees, they will roll those taxes into another area like property taxes.

“They might have it tucked away somewhere else,” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, committee chair.

Eugene Holbrook said he retired from military service in 2000 and chose to live in Florida and Alabama because of the lack of taxes for veterans. Originally from Minnesota, he moved back in 2008, but he said the tax climate makes it hard to explain why he’s here.

“Minnesota offers tremendous benefits to the citizens here and we enjoy it,” Holbrook said. “But I look every year at how this is playing out, and I’d like to stay in Minnesota.”

Nancy Connolly’s husband is a disabled veteran and she said the comments about the great service at Veteran’s Affairs hospitals and clinics aren’t true. In fact, she said, many of the veterans she knows are treated poorly there.

“It’s appalling the way our veterans are treated,” Connolly said. “Everyone in government is letting every one of those men down.”

Returning to the podium multiple times to address the committee, Connolly’s emotion about the issue was evident as she explained her husband’s dire situation. He’s not alone, she said, as many veterans are dealing with a variety of issues and simply aren’t getting the care they deserve.

“If you’re going to do something for one veteran, like the retired ones,” Connolly said. “You need to do it for all the veterans.”

Benton Murdock spent 40 years in the Army and thanked the committee members for their concern about veterans affairs. Much of the talk is about benefits, he said, but the conversation should be about honoring them.

Roger Akervik told the committee the Veterans Choice Program from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which allows veterans not near a VA medical facility to see a local provider, is broken. Wait times to see a doctor regularly hit 60 or 90 days, he said.

Don Saxum said a bout with the flu a couple years ago led him to a VA medical center for treatment. They prescribed medication, he said, but his condition didn’t improve until he ended up in an emergency room in Brainerd, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He then had issues with the VA covering his medical costs following his treatment.

“It really sucked and I just figured I would share that story with you,” Saxum said.

The comments the committee heard Thursday in Brainerd echo the same comments they’ve heard in the other parts of the state, Anderson said.

Audit talk

Legislation passed last session enabled counties to contract with private auditing firms to perform local audits, instead of being mandated to use the State Auditor’s Office. Cities, school districts and 22 counties are already allowed to use private auditors, Anderson said, so the law extended that flexibility to all counties.

Testifying before the committee, Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle said the new law was wise because it allowed counties to see if a private auditor could perform an audit more quickly or less expensively than the State Auditor’s Office. The office has done Crow Wing County’s audits for years, he said, and the staff are very capable and very qualified.

“Audits are essential, they’re not a burden, they’re not an interruption in our world,” Houle said.

The law was a good idea because cities, school districts and 28 counties already use private auditing firms, Houle said.

“This horse has already left the barn,” Houle said.

The proper role of the State Auditor’s Office is to review completed audits and ensure they meet the proper standards and practices, Houle said. If the office finds any issues, it could step in and require the audit to be done again.

Part of the reason for the law was to provide a balance to control the price of audits, Howe said. Counties can seek out quotes for audits, he said, but it doesn’t mean they’ll stop using the State Auditor’s Office.

Anderson pointed out State Auditor Rebecca Otto sued Becker, Ramsey and Wright counties over the law, a move Anderson called unfortunate. She said with the office’s fee fluctuating from year to year, it’s harder for counties to budget for the cost of the audit. Deborah Erickson, administrative services director, said Crow Wing County’s annual audit costs range from $70,000-$75,000.

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett.

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