U.S. military veterans residing in the Garden State could see increased aid and protections under a bipartisan push for legislation helping this cohort in the State Senate.
The Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee advanced a number of bills, with subjects ranging from an expansion of tax exemptions to bolstering a beleaguered program designed to set-aside government contracts for veteran-owned businesses.
GOP lawmakers introduced two bills advanced by the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee that were designed to protect veterans’ mental health, with a bill sponsored by State Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-25) designed specifically to combat veteran suicide.
Protecting Veterans’ Mental Health
The bill would allow the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA) to accept gifts, grants, and donations from the public and private sectors for the purpose of public service announcements for the prevention of veteran suicide.
“According to the latest report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the suicide rate among veterans remains extremely high, accounting for thousands of lives every year. And tragically, the psychological and economic consequences of the pandemic have been devastating for many of the brave men and women who have served this country,” said Bucco.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Kristin Corrado introduced legislation that would allow DMAVA to help veterans with the necessary forms and conditions required by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to upgrade discharge papers for those who were separated from the military but have since been diagnosed with mental health conditions.
“These veterans served our nation, and as a result they are struggling. Our concern is with getting them help, not with how or why they left the service,” Corrado emphasized.
Improving Set-Aside Program
State Sen. Joe Cryan (D-20) would seek to increase to 6% from 3% the share of state contracts awarded to veterans with service-related disabilities, and would provide enforcement avenues for the legislation.
The program was recently exposed to be failing its statutory commitments, with a number of legislators publicly speaking out against the failures.
“This program is not living up to its promise to disabled veterans,” said Cryan, the chair of the Veterans Committee. “We have to do more and do better to make it work and give these vets the opportunities they deserve. These are men and women who carry the wounds of their service to our country. They have earned the right to take advantage of this program.”
Increased Tax Exemptions, Payments for Disabilities
Under legislation sponsored by State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-16), eligibility for the $6,000 veterans’ gross income tax exemption would be expanded by eliminating a requirement that the taxpayer serve in active duty status or federal active duty status.
“Part of the call to serve is the expectation that the time and place of that service carries great uncertainty and courage. Therefore, any New Jersey veteran who has honorably worn the uniform of our country, regardless of when or where, and regardless of whether deployed at the order of the President or of the Governor, has earned this measure of tax relief as a small token of gratitude for their service,” said Zwicker upon announcing the committee had moved the bill forward.
Meanwhile, legislation sponsored by State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14) would increase the annual allowance paid to veterans with specific wartime service-connected disabilities to $1,800 from $750.
“Payments to our war-time veterans with certain disabilities, who wore the uniform and sacrificed so much for our country, have not been increased in decades. While we can never repay that sacrifice in full, this legislation seeks to provide a more just and well-deserved compensation,” Greenstein said.
New Vet Center
Additionally, the committee advanced a resolution put forward by State Sen. Steve Oroho (R-24) that would see the state call on Washington to develop a northwest New Jersey Veterans Center.
Oroho’s resolution urged the state to call on the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington to designated a new Veterans Center to serve the nearly 50,000 veterans living in Sussex, Moors, Hunterdon, and Warren counties.
If developed, the program create New Jersey’s sixth Vet Center. Oroho said the new vet center was “desperately needed in this part of the state….accentuated during the pandemic, and this resolution will encourage the Federal government to step up and ensure our veterans have access to the help they need.”