AUGUSTA — A bill that adds staff to Maine’s Bureau of Veterans Services gained final approval in the state Senate Monday on a unanimous vote.

The legislation, LD 1612, would also provide tuition to the University of Maine and the state’s community college system for members of the Maine National Guard.

The bill combines some of the recommendations of a special commission that worked in 2015 to review the bureau and make suggestions for its improvement. 

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, first championed the legislation for the commission and then co-chaired its work. Golden said Monday that he was pleased he and his Republican colleagues were able to find the estimated $2 million to fund the bill after an earlier proposal by Golden to use surplus revenue from the state’s liquor sales was rejected by Republicans.

Instead, lawmakers settled on using surplus revenue from the state’s gambling control board, along with unspent bonding revenue held by the University of Maine System.

The bill, among other things, would add at least four full-time staff members to the bureau, including three new veterans service officers and one outreach and marketing coordinator. The changes should allow the bureau to better connect with the state’s estimated 140,000 veterans and improve its ability to support them.

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It is estimated the state has made contact with only about 65,000 of those veterans and that many may not even know they are eligible for services or benefits.

The bill also includes funding to modernize the bureau’s paper record-keeping system to a computerized system that will help the bureau better track and share information about the veterans it aids.

Two of the three new veterans services officers will also be mobile and able to go to veterans in rural areas instead of being based in offices in larger cities.

Key to the legislation is the assignment of one veterans services officer to specialize in the area of homelessness. A key finding of the 2015 commission was that the state had no one agency that was solely responsible for identifying and aiding homeless veterans in Maine.

“It’s been tremendously gratifying to see how the Legislature came together to improve the lives of Mainers who serve our country,” said Golden, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “If we are truly going to do right by our veterans, we need to make a long overdue investment in Bureau of Veterans Services so it can keep up with their changing needs.”

Golden has previously said the need to modernize the bureau was apparent after he and other lawmakers, who serve on the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, attended a meeting with some of the state’s younger veterans. Many of those veterans felt the bureau needed to improve the way it connected with and communicated with veterans, especially those who have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Also apparent was the need to modernize the bureau’s record-keeping system and expand its staff. Golden and others have noted the last time the state made any significant investment in the bureau was prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, who co-chaired the commission with Golden, said earlier this month that Golden’s work on both the commission and in seeing legislation, with funding passed in 2016, was “tireless.” 

But for his part, Golden has deflected credit for the legislation, saying it was largely a group effort involving countless veterans around Maine and many lawmakers, who are veterans as well.

“It doesn’t matter who gets credit, just that it (gets) done,” Golden said.

“Many veterans and legislators put a lot of effort into the development of these important proposals, ” Golden said. “I’m proud of the way that everyone worked together to find compromise and support the passage of these bills. If we are truly going to do right by our veterans, we need to make a long-overdue investment in Bureau of Veterans Services so it can keep up with their changing needs.”

The bill was also amended to include a proposal by Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, to provide the tuition support for Guard members who are in good standing with their respective units. Farrin, along with current Adjutant General of the Maine National Guard Douglas Farnam, said that tuition assistance is critical to recruitment and retention for Maine’s volunteer guardsmen and women.

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Farrin, who is 30-year member of the Air National Guard in Maine and a U.S. Air Force veteran, said lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who are veterans of the Army, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy all came together to see the bill through.

“We had all branches of the services covered,” Farrin said. “In the end, this bill is a win for our taxpayers and our soldiers, airmen and Guard members, and it shows we can work together on an important issue.”

Farrin said the tuition piece was a big win for Maine as well as it would help keep some of the state’s “best and brightest here in Maine” instead of joining Guard units in other states that offered better tuition assistance or benefits.

The bill goes to Gov. Paul LePage, who will have 10 days to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

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