AUGUSTA — A quiver of bills meant to better assist Maine veterans as well as cover University of Maine and community college tuition costs for members of the state’s National Guard gained unanimous approval Friday in state House of Representatives.

The legislation, much of it a result or recommendations from a special commission that examined the state’s Bureau of Veterans Services and ways to improve it in 2015, was held up earlier this week as Republicans and Democrats disagreed over how to pay for it.  

Among other things, the legislation expands staffing at the bureau to include two new and mobile veterans’ service officers, who help Maine veterans gain eligibility to the various state and federal benefits they are entitled to. An additional veterans service officer, who will specialize in helping homeless veterans in Maine, will also be added to the bureau.  The legislation also includes funding for a full-time outreach coordinator for the bureau and to update the bureau’s largely paper-only record-keeping system to a computerize one that will allow the bureau to more easily and quickly manage the cases of the veterans it is helping. 

In all, it’s estimated Maine has about 140,000 veterans but only about 64,000 are known to the bureau. Part of the legislation also focuses on modernizing the bureau’s  communication with veterans in an attempt to reach more of the younger veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Republicans and Democrats split on how to fund the estimated $1.5 million yearly price tag but settled on a pair of funding sources for the measures including about $2.5 million in bonding funds that were offered by the University of Maine System to cover the possible tuition costs National Guard members for the next five years.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, a combat Marine Corps veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the sponsor of the legislation that set up the 2015 commission thanked lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Friday for finding a path forward for the legislation.

Golden said he knows lawmakers are in agreement on doing the best they can for Maine veterans and was pleased an alternative funding source to one he had proposed earlier in the week that had been rejected by Republicans had been found.

Republicans opposed using some of the $45 million in profits the state receives for the sale of hard alcohol as Golden proposed noting large portions of that revenue was already flowing to other state expenses.

Golden said he pushed for the legislation passionately because he believed it was the right thing to do for his fellow veterans and told House lawmakers how he was motivated to help more veterans after meeting with some from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who told him they were discouraged.

“One of them said something to me that day that really hit me hard,” Golden said. “He said he believed that the state didn’t want him to live here in Maine, that Maine would just see him as a burden. That’s not okay because I know this state has a proud history of military service and that this body is proud of our veterans.”

Still Golden said, “sometimes perceptions can be reality.” Golden has previously said he also knows the legislation while a positive step forward will not solve all the issues facing Maine’s veterans both young and old.

State Rep. Jonathan Kinney, R-Limington, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman, worked with Golden to find funding for the bill —  which will come from surplus revenue on hand at the state’s Gambling Control Board.

Kinney also thanked lawmakers of both parties including Golden and Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock. Farrin, himself a 30-year member of the Maine Air National Guard with deployments to war zones, had sponsored the bill to provide tuition to guard members in good standing.

“Politicians did the right thing today,” Farrin said. “The winners are our veterans and our soldiers and airmen of the Maine National Guard.”

The legislation will now move to the Maine Senate where it faces additional votes. Lawmakers there who either worked with Golden and the others on the legislation or who sit on the state budget-writing Appropriations Committee said the unanimous vote in House bodes well for passage in the Senate.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.