Dayton proposes expansion to veterans programs

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Getting ready
The Fairmont honor guard unit is present at services for veteran Jack Breen, in a file photo from May 22, 2010. Gov. Dayton proposed restoring funding that pays stipends to local veterans organizations who provide honor guards at veterans' funerals. The funding was eliminated in the last state budget.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

On the eve of Veterans Day, Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing two initiatives designed to help and honor Minnesota's military veterans. One would help more veterans find work. The other would restore funding for honor guards at military funerals.

Dayton's plan would expand the state's GI Bill, to assist more veterans who are looking for jobs.

Currently the program makes available up to $10,000 for veterans to pursue job retraining programs over their lifetime. But it applies only to veterans who have served since Sept. 11, 2001. Dayton wants to expand it to cover every veteran in Minnesota.

"The unemployment rate among Minnesota veterans is variously estimated at between 8.5 and 16 percent, which at the upper level would mean it would be double the state average," said Dayton.

Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito said the expansion would mean veterans who served during peacetime, the Gulf War or in Vietnam will be eligible for benefits. Those veterans are mostly ineligible for benefits in the federal GI Bill. The state GI Bill provides funds when no other financial aid is available.

Shellito says veterans can receive $1,000 per semester, or $3,000 a year, up to the $10,000 limit. Shellito says the funds can be used for college education, learning a trade or other job training. He said it could be as simple as giving a veteran training on a new computer program.

"What we have to do is make sure that this veteran can walk into an employer and have the skill set that employer is looking for," he said.

Shellito says the expansion would take money from an existing fund that is going unused.

Veterans groups applauded the move. Tom Newman with the American Legion's Minnesota chapter said expanding the GI Bill will ensure that veterans who lost their jobs will be able to learn new skills.

"So much has changed in the workforce," he said. "Skills that a lot of individuals have, they become perishable after a while. This would give them the flexibility to pursue some of those opportunities that exist."

Dayton is also proposing to permanently fund a state stipend for military honor guards. The state was providing a $50 stipend for veterans service organizations to perform military honors at veterans' funerals.

The funding ran out in June, but was revived on an ad hoc basis in September after MPR News reported about the cut. Dayton acknowledged the oversight during a Thursday news conference and said he's hoping to make the funding permanent.

"We didn't pick up on that. I'll take the blame for that, but we didn't submit a request to continue that," said Dayton. "The idea is to get the program back established to previous funding levels, or ongoing, so it continues year to year."

The federal government requires that any family requesting military honors receive them. In many instances, veterans service organizations provide the benefit free of charge. The state stipend is meant to reimburse those groups $50 for mileage, equipment and uniforms.

Jeff Alger, State Adjutant for the Minnesota chapter of Disabled American Veterans, says the organizations would have continued to provide the honors but said the stipend helps them make ends meet.

"No one is going to get rich off of this, but it does help them continue to provide this service," said Alger.

Both of these proposals need approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature. Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, who chairs the Senate State Government and Veterans Committee, says he's inclined to support Dayton's proposal.

Parry, who is running for Congress in Minnesota's 1st District, says he may also want to expand the GI Bill to other areas.

"We have to look at everything that is out there right now," said Parry. "If we have some veterans that have actually have come back and need some help with their businesses as well, it's prudent for us to take a look at that as well."

Parry says he's not yet ready to offer specifics because he's still working on a proposal. The 2012 legislative session starts on January 24.