AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday signed into law legislation meant to strengthen and modernize Maine’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services and provide state community college and university tuition to members of the Maine National Guard.

The legislation, largely based on the recommendations of a special commission that was set up by the Legislature in 2015 to study ways to improve and strengthen the bureau, was amended to provide the tuition waivers for Guard members who are in good standing with their units.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, the sponsor of the 2015 law that set up the special commission, along with Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, who sponsored the tuition waiver legislation, worked together to garner broad bipartisan support for the bill signed by LePage.

LePage vetoed the legislation that set up the commission, but the Legislature overrode the veto in 2015.

“Today is a great day for the Mainers who serve our country,” Golden said after the signing. “So many people came together to make sure we ease the transition from military to civilian life. We now have a law that helps us do that better and truly honors the contributions of Maine servicemen and servicewomen.”

Farrin, a 30-year member of the Air National Guard and a U.S. Air Force veteran, said the new law puts Maine on the same playing field as other states in the region.

“Maine was the only state in New England that did not offer any type of tuition assistance to our Guard members,” Farrin said. “Today, thanks to a true bipartisan effort, we offer one of the best educational incentives.”

Among other things, the legislation provides about $2 million a year to add staff, specifically three new veterans’ service officers, to the bureau so it can better connect with and assist Maine’s estimated 140,000 veterans as they seek the services and benefits they are entitled to under state and federal laws.

The brief signing ceremony Thursday was attended by Golden, Farrin and a handful of other lawmakers, who are also veterans or who are serving in the Maine National Guard. Also present was Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, who co-chaired with Golden the special commission.

The director of the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Services and the state’s National Guard adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Douglas Farnham, along with several members of the National Guard, attended the ceremony with LePage. Other Maine veterans who served on the special commission also attended the ceremony, along with state Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

“This is a tremendous day for the Maine National Guard,” Farnham said. “The tuition bill will go a long way toward recruiting and retaining our Maine National Guard force and keep our talented men and women here in Maine where they belong. We are also grateful for the additional resources that will allow the Bureau of Veterans’ Services to better serve all Maine veterans.”

Golden, a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, pushed for review of the bureau following a series of meetings he and other members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee had with veterans from across Maine.

From those meetings, Golden said, it became clear that the state’s most recent and youngest veterans felt disconnected from the bureau and many had little information about services available to them to help with everything from higher education and employment training to health services offered through the federal Veterans Affairs Administration.

Of the four new positions the legislation brings to the bureau, one will be especially dedicated to improving and coordinating outreach and communication with Maine veterans. 

The bureau estimates it has contact with only about 65,000 of the state’s total veteran population of 140,000, one of the highest per capita in the U.S.

The other three new staff will be added to the bureau’s existing cadre of veterans’ service officers, who work directly with veterans to help them identify and receive the benefits they earned through their military service. One of those new officers will be tasked with focusing on Maine’s homeless veterans population. A key finding of the commission’s work was the lack of a dedicated state agency or individual to focus on the issue of homeless veterans.

The other two new officers will be mobile and able to go to veterans where they are to help them.

The new law also provides funding to modernize the bureau’s antiquated paper-only records system with a computer-based system that will allow the bureau to better share information on the veterans it serves.

“I am proud to sign this bill into law,” LePage said in a prepared statement following the signing ceremony, which was closed to the media and the public.

“Our veterans give so much to our state and nation and ask for so little in return,” LePage said. “The experience they gain in military service brings valuable skills and talented employees to our workforce. It is only right that we should give back to them, provide the services they deserve.”

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