07/17/07 — Military bills get look from Assembly

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Military bills get look from Assembly

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 17, 2007 1:46 PM

Although Medicaid has captured headlines for more than a few days as state budget talks continue, many North Carolina legislators are watching to see what happens with several bills before the General Assembly that could affect military families.

And local military leaders -- like Seymour Johnson Air Force Base 4th Fighter Wing Col. Steve Kwast -- are paying attention, too.

Among those bills are proposals on tuition assistance, grants for families undergoing hardships and several to protect the employment of reservists and members of the National Guard.

Kwast said he often hears legislators and others say they want to make North Carolina the most military friendly state in the U.S. And so far, he added, they have backed up those claims.

"They don't just say it. They follow up their vision with their actions, and North Carolina does it better than anybody else," he said. "I can't tell you how grateful I am. Not every state is like this, and I think it's special."

Among those watching and helping shepherd these bills through the legislative process are Reps. Louis Pate, R-Wayne and Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, members of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Military and Veterans Affairs.

One such proposal would offer $26 million in grants for families experiencing hardships. Others offer tuition assistance to military members and their children, while still another would protect the parental custody and visitation rights of deployed parents.

Also being discussed is a proposal to offer property tax relief to veterans who are 100 percent disabled, particularly those who need help modifying their homes.

"The family action has to continue. We just want to help them over tough spots," Pate said.

In addition, other legislation is cracking down on those who would perpetrate financial scams on the troops.

He explained that service members are especially prone to predatory practices, such as those offering life insurance that might not actually cover death in combat, because many are young and might be away from home for the first time.

Other General Assembly actions focus on protecting the jobs and benefits of state employees who are deployed, as well as helping those businesses who employ reservists and members of the National Guard with $4 million worth of tax credits.

"We want to show the employers that the state feels very proud that they are hiring people who can be called up for military duty," Pate said. "This can help them keep that job open until they come back."

And last but not least, Braxton said, are the continuing efforts to protect the state's military bases from outside encroachment.

"That might be the most important -- that buffer," he said.

Braxton explained that he thinks the legislative emphasis on the military this year is a direct result of the 2005 base re-alignment and closure.

"I think there's probably been a renewal of people wanting to help the military bases after BRAC," Braxton said. "I think people kind of thought the military would always be here and BRAC got people thinking that maybe it wouldn't and that we need to do something not only to help the bases, but the families, too, because it'll be back."

"We've said it before, BRAC is sort of like Dracula. It never dies. It just sleeps and we want to be ready for it when it wakes back up," Pate added.

And based on the General Assembly's actions this session, Troy Pate, chairman of the N.C. Advisory Commission on Military Affairs, thinks they've done a good job of doing what's necessary to protect the $18 billion a year economic contribution the military makes.

"We certainly can't expect them to pass everything we send up there, but I would, on the whole, say the military has been done a real justice by our legislature," he said.