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Pawlenty pushes tax break and other benefits for veterans

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(AP) Minnesota officials are pursuing a new state cemetery for veterans in the Duluth area, which would be only the second run by the state.      

 The proposal is part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's 35-point package of veterans initiatives he will ask the 2008 Legislature to approve. Pawlenty outlined his ideas on Monday, the official government observance of Veterans Day.

      While the federal government would pay to design and build the cemetery, the state needs to secure the land and demonstrate a willingness to pay ongoing operational costs.

      Minnesota's other state-run veterans cemetery is in Little Falls. The federal government runs Ft. Snelling National Cemetery near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

      Pawlenty administration officials had few details about the proposed cemetery, such as the plot of land where it would be located.

      State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clark Dyrud said the federal office that reviews cemetery proposals has already acknowledged a need for one in that part of the state. He expects it would be a few years before the cemetery would open.

      The entire slate of proposals would cost the state $51 million in its current budget period. Many of the items on Pawlenty's list would build on existing programs. Others are ideas he's presented before without success.

      That includes his plan to eliminate the state income tax for military pay and pensions. The exemption would save veterans, active-duty troops and survivors of military retirees $25 million a year by 2012.

      "We believe veterans have paid enough," Pawlenty said.

      The Republican governor said 42 other states offer some type of pay exclusion in their tax codes. He said Minnesota used to offer a limited tax exemption for military pensions, but repealed that 20 years ago.

      Other items in his package include:

      -A reimbursement program for employers that hire or train veterans.

      -Money for a study of mental health needs of returning veterans.

      -Additional spending on programs that help soldiers make emergency house and utility payments.

      -Expanded outreach and marketing of veterans services.

      Dyrud said fewer than 40 percent of veterans are aware of the state benefits to which they are entitled.

      Adjutant General Larry Shellito, head of the Minnesota National Guard, said every item on Pawlenty's list fulfills a practical need.

      "Virtually every one of things you see on the sheet can be grounded with a specific incident and rationale," Shellito said. "This is not a dream sheet."

      At the Capitol, veterans measures have proven to be a rare unifying issue area between the GOP administration and the DFL-led Legislature. That was evident Monday, when Pawlenty was flanked by legislators of both parties.

      "Everything should get a good reception," said DFL Rep. Al Juhnke, who leads a House committee in charge of veterans issues. "But there will be additions and subtractions as well."

      Juhnke said he expects to emphasize programs that address mental health needs of veterans.