"When they were young, our veterans took care of America's needs. Now it's time we do our duty and take care of our veterans' needs as they grow older."
-- Gov. Tony Knowles, during a press conference earlier this week urging the Legislature to "pick up the pace" and act on a package of veterans bills.
Forget apple pie and motherhood. If you want red, white and blue, veterans are as American as it gets.
These are the men and women who exemplify sacrifice and love of country. They are the nation's protectors, the defenders of our freedom. They served the rest of the nation, knowing full well that their job may have meant losing their lives in the name of liberty. Many of them have suffered disabling injuries in the line of service.
When their tour or tours of duty are over, the nation's military personnel deserve not only the respect of other Americans, but also some protection of their own. That's what the governor's package of bills in the Legislature would do:
n House Bill 371 and Senate Bill 267 would create an endowment with $125,000 in state money to repair and maintain veterans' memorials in Alaska. Private contributions would match the state funding.
n House Bill 370 and Senate Bill 268 would approve a $500 million revenue bond package to continue a popular program to help veterans with home loans at the lowest possible interest rates. Veterans' mortgage payments would repay the debt.
n Senate Bill 54 and House Bill 87 would make the Alaska Veterans' Advisory Council, which the governor established by administrative order, permanent by putting it in state statute.
n House Bill 88 and Senate Bill 55 would convert the pioneers' home system into an Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans' Home system and spend $2.6 million to hire staff so about 100 vacant beds in the homes can be filled. These bills also would spend $250,000 to study what would be needed in a standalone veterans home.
It's difficult to understand why these bills aimed at helping veterans apparently are stalled in the Legislature. The events of the world since Sept. 11 certainly have renewed everyone's appreciation for those who serve and have served in the military. We don't believe anyone in the Legislature is anti-veteran, so why aren't lawmakers acting on these measures? It's as hard to argue against them as it is to dislike motherhood and apple pie.
Yes, some of the bills cost money. Because the Legislature has yet to pass a long-range fiscal plan, it provides a convenient excuse to delay action on them.
Nevertheless, there are beds in the state's pioneers' homes that aren't filled and veterans who need those beds. Shouldn't Alaska do what it can to keep veterans in the state? Alaska, with more veterans per capita than 48 other states, is the only state that does not have a veterans' home in place or under construction. Veterans' groups have pushed for such a home for more than two decades.
The bond package to finance home loans for veterans would be repaid with the veterans' mortgage payments. Isn't that a win-win for everyone?
And doesn't the state have a responsibility to maintain and repair the veterans' memorials in Alaska? To not do so is just a slap in the face to veterans.
Given the state's fiscal situation, it would be understandable if the state delayed the $250,000 study to see what would be needed in a standalone veterans home. And perhaps the conversion of the pioneers' home system to include veterans could be done with something less than $2.6 million.
But lack of money should not automatically kill these veterans' measures.
Veterans transcend all kinds of boundaries. They include men and women of all races, religions, creeds and political parties. According to the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, there are 68,000 veterans living in Alaska; 5,500 make their home on the Kenai Peninsula. Those veterans could pack a powerful punch at the polls.
Benefits for those veterans should not be held hostage by lawmakers who want to play political games. It's an affront to the veterans and a great disservice to a political process those veterans defended.
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