HARRISBURG – Those in the military know there is always something more that can be done to prepare for a mission. And there is more the state can do to make sure those who are serving, and those who have served, are not forgotten, according to Senator Lisa Baker (R-20th).
“Those defending freedom heed the call of duty,” she said. “We must be just as vigilant in supporting them.”
Baker, who serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, is working to advance several bills to assist those who bravely put country before self.
Pennsylvania recently updated its Stolen Valor law to include impersonating a service member to obtain money, property or other benefits, like health care, a job or a government contract. But one local Air Force vet wondered why monies collected from a conviction go to the state’s general fund rather than to aid veterans. Senate Bill 933 directs that all fines paid would be given to the Veterans Trust Fund.
“Falsely posing as a veteran or service member is an affront to all those who earn the right to wear the uniform,” Baker said. “For whatever reason, there are people who lie about military service for personal gain. But thanks to the suggestion of an area veteran, these crimes can hopefully be used to aid genuine American heroes.”
Baker helped to create the Veterans Trust Fund in 2012, to provide grants to veterans’ service organizations, charitable groups seeking to aid veterans, and county veterans affairs offices to help veterans in need of shelter and other necessities of living. There is a $3 checkoff box on all driver’s license and vehicle registration renewal forms that allows motorists to donate to the program. $15 of the Honoring Our Veterans license plate fee is also contributed to the fund. To date, grants totaling more than $2.8 million have been awarded to organizations serving veterans, and an additional $2.2 million has been provided to individual veterans and their families.
Our disabled veterans incur a lot of costs as a result of their service. Pennsylvania’s property tax exemption program is one of the ways we try to relieve some of the financial burden. Currently, income-eligible, 100 percent disabled veterans qualify, if they served during a time of officially declared war. Senate Bill 389 would expand the benefit to all service periods.
“Disabled veterans should not be excluded because their military service falls outside of a certain time range,” Baker said.
Another proposal, Senate Bill 390, would extend the program to the surviving spouse of a soldier killed in action. Current guidelines only allow the benefit to be transferred to a surviving spouse of a totally disabled veteran.
Military families sacrifice a lot for their loved one’s service. While Pennsylvania offers various assistance to ease their burden, it is one of only four states that does not protect the unemployment compensation rights of the spouses of those on active duty.
“Our military spouses face numerous challenges when relocating because of a transfer,” Baker said. “With an unemployment rate four times higher than that of civilians, they are in need of the benefit while they are trying to find a new job.”
Senate Bill 271 would clarify that a husband or wife’s move to follow an active duty spouse would not be considered voluntary if it is determined that continued employment would be impractical or unreasonably difficult.
Custody and Visitation
Because of the mobile nature of armed forces service, child custody issues can be particularly difficult for military families. This can be compounded when parents live in different states.
In 2012, Baker helped change the law to make it easier for military parents to modify their custody arrangements before deploying. Senate Bill 511 would complement these efforts by providing more uniformity regarding the assignment of custody and visitation rights of deployed parents.
“Disagreements can impact both the child’s welfare and the service member’s ability to perform their duties,” Baker said. “We should do all we can to ease the situation.”
Andrew M. Seder