110th General Assembly Passes Legislation Aiding and Honoring Veterans

110th General Assembly Passes Legislation Aiding and Honoring Veterans

The Senate approved a package of bills this year honoring the men and women who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, adding to significant legislation adopted during the first year of the 110th General Assembly.  Last year’s action included a new law which provided protections to employers if they give hiring preference to honorably discharged veterans and their spouses, as well as the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act, which provides funding toward a first time bachelor degree through a tuition reimbursement program for those who protect and serve our state and country.

2018 Legislative Action

Budget — This year, the legislature approved a state budget which provides $5.4 million in additional funds for veterans.  These funds provide $600,000 for the land purchase for a new veterans’ cemetery in the Upper Cumberland, $3 million for the Cleveland Veterans Home, $100,000 for the East Tennessee Veterans’ Cemetery Fuel Dispensing Station and $700,000 for Centerstone Military Services for professional counseling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  In addition the budget provides $50,000 for the Johnson City/Washington County Veterans Memorial, $250,000 for the Coolidge Medal of Honor Museum in Chattanooga and $100,000 for the Dyersburg Army Air Base Memorial Foundation.

Tax Relief – Two tax relief measures affecting veterans were passed during the 2018 legislative session.  One ensures that disabled veterans and elderly homeowners can continue to qualify for property tax relief if they are hospitalized or temporarily placed in a nursing home. The other bill exempts disabled veterans who receive a modified vehicle from the Veteran’s Administration (VA) due to a severe disability from having to pay sales tax or a registration fee on that vehicle.

Stolen Valor ActLegislation was approved this year to safeguard the identities of Tennessee veterans who serve the state and nation by cracking down on instances of theft and fraud involving those who attempt to imitate them.  The Stolen Valor Act creates a Class A misdemeanor for anyone who impersonates a veteran or individuals who fraudulently represent their service with the intent of obtaining money, property, services, or any other tangible benefits.

Veteran Input on Boards — Two bills were approved during the 2018 legislative session to ensure veteran input on boards that oversee important services to military men and women.  One measure calls on the governor to appoint veterans to Tennessee’s university and community college systems. The state has numerous veteran programs including the Tennessee Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) Program which allocates resources for veterans’ successful transition from military service to college enrollment.  The second bill ensures that at least one military veteran is placed on the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ Statewide Planning and Policy Council, which among other duties, oversees treatment services to veterans.  

Veterans Seeking Public Office – Certain veterans seeking public office could benefit under two new laws adopted this year.  One prohibits political parties from disqualifying an honorably discharged veteran or active duty guardsman in good standing as a candidate for any elected office based on the number of times he or she voted preceding the election. This would ensure that those who have difficulties meeting qualifications of voting in consecutive elections due to service overseas would not be disqualified.  The second measure allows a veteran who has been called up for active military service during their elected term of office on a city council, to continue as a council member for up to 13 months via a two-way electronic audio-video communication.

Military Families — A bill was passed this year raising the amount of sick leave that may be used (after paid leave is exhausted) by an educator who is a reserve member of the United States armed forces when called into active duty to bridge any gap in pay that might occur.  Military families are also the impetus behind the passage of legislation which allows a surviving spouse of a National Guard member to be issued a National Guard license plate until he or she remarries as many want to remember their loved one through renewal of the tag.

Veteran Memorials — Three bills were approved this year to help ensure our soldiers are not forgotten.  This includes a new law calling for a POW/MIA Chair of Honor Memorial to be placed on Tennessee’s Capitol campus.  The Chair of Honor Memorial will be placed at a suitable location if the costs are provided by private funds. A Chair of Honor is a very simple yet powerful memorial which generally includes a single back chair with the POW/MIA logo on it which is then flanked by the American Flag and the POW/MIA Flag.  Another new law honoring veterans directs TDOT to erect signs acknowledging each branch of the United States armed forces along State Route 62 as “Veterans Memorial Mile” in Knox County.  The third bill provides an exemption from certain property taxes for the Coolidge Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga.  The center, which plans to open in 2020, teaches about the six character traits all Medal of Honor recipients share, which are courage, commitment, sacrifice, patriotism, integrity, and citizenship.

Finally, a new law was approved this year that prohibits local governments from adopting or enforcing regulations that ban or restrict the display of flags of the U.S., Tennessee, POW/MIA or those representing any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.

2017 Legislative Action

BUDGET — The budget fully restores property tax relief for 100 percent service-related disabled veterans by raising the home value threshold from $100,000 to $175,000.  The budget also calls for additional veterans courts to help offenders get the help they need through a specialized program which has been highly successful.  In addition, appropriations this year provide $18 million for a State Veterans’ Home in West Tennessee.

Veterans / Employment — Legislation passed which provides protections to employers if they give hiring preference to honorably discharged veterans, their spouses, in certain cases, or survivors.  It includes spouses of a veteran with a service-connected disability, unremarried widows or widowers of a veteran who died of a service-connected disability, and unremarried widows or widowers of a member of the military who died in the line of duty.

The new law allows companies to give special consideration for hiring veterans.  Many companies want to give preference to veterans because of their unique skill sets, proven work ethic, and reliability, but may be hesitant to do so out of concern of being sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VII, Section 11 of the Civil Rights Act contains a carve-out that exempts veterans’ preference processes that are authorized by state statute.

Handgun Training / Military Personnel – A new law passed during the 2017 legislative session that exempts active-duty military service members and veterans who have specialties as military police, special operations, or Special Forces from handgun carry permit firing range requirements.  The specialties include military police, special operations, and Special Forces due to the intensive firearms training that is required of these soldiers.

U.S. Armed Forces / Marriage While Deployed — Members of the United States Armed Forces, stationed in another country, can be married via video conferencing under another law which passed this year.  This legislation aims to help soldiers who are deployed and wish to marry during that time.

Veterans / Yellow DOT Program — Veterans / Yellow DOT Program  — Lawmakers voted this year to extend the state’s Yellow DOT Program to include veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).  The Yellow DOT Program is designed to provide first responders with an individual’s medical information in the event of an emergency on Tennessee’s roadways.  This new statute calls for including veterans, should they choose to opt in, to inform the police officers and other responders of a potential medical situation due to PTSD.   It also authorizes TDOT to publicize the Yellow Dot Program in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Services and agencies providing services to veterans.

Armed Forces / Veterans Hospitals – Two resolutions passed by the Tennessee General Assembly this year urge the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish VA hospitals in Knoxville and Clarksville.  Over 500,000 veterans of the United States Armed Forces live in Tennessee.  Clarksville in Montgomery County is the home of Fort Campbell and the 101st Airborne Division with about 28,000 veterans residing there and 8,000 living just across the state line in Kentucky.  Veterans from Clarksville must drive 80 miles or more to receive care, while those in East Tennessee may have to drive more than 150 miles.

Senate Joint Resolutions 4 & Senate Joint Resolution 5 

POW/MIA Flag – Legislation was approved which calls for flying the POW/MIA flag over the Legislative Plaza and the Vietnam Veterans Plaza all year to remember the sacrifices of soldiers who are prisoners of war or missing in action.  It will be displayed over the State Capitol during the month of September as the third Friday of September is National POW/MIA Recognition Day.

Veterans / Burial Flag – A new law passed requiring the adjutant general to provide a burial flag to the members of the family of a deceased person who is an active, honorable discharged, or retired member of the national guard who served at least one year.

U.S. Flag / Armed Forces  — A new statute has been signed into law which prohibits homeowners’ associations from adopting or enforcing regulations that prohibit flying of the U.S. flag or flags representing the Armed Forces.  The law applies to those adopted on or after July 1, 2017, the effective date of the act.

Enhanced Penalties for Targeting Law Enforcement or Military – Legislation was passed this year increasing penalties against those convicted of intentionally selecting their victim because of his or her status as a uniformed law enforcement officer or member of the armed forces.  The enhancement factor can be considered by the court at the time of sentencing.  The new law was inspired by the many brave men and women in uniform, who have lost their lives, were injured or targeted simply because of their jobs as protectors of the community.  This legislation aims to send a clear message that the reprehensible behavior of these dangerous criminals will not be tolerated, and they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

STRONG ACT — Two key bills providing more education opportunities for those serving in the military passed during the 2017 legislative session.  This includes the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act, which creates a pilot program to provide eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard tuition.  The new law provides funding toward a first time bachelor degree through a tuition reimbursement program for those who protect and serve our state and country.  It also provides consistency for recruiting, increasing competitiveness with surrounding states.

To be eligible the individual must be in good standing with the Tennessee National Guard and be admitted to and enroll in an eligible institution (any Tennessee public community college, public university, or private college or university, all of which must be regionally accredited).  Individuals attending private institutions will be reimbursed for the average cost at a public institution.  Program recipients must maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0.  An individual who loses eligibility for failing to maintain a 2.0 grade point average may regain eligibility upon maintaining a 2.0 grade point average in a subsequent semester.

As a last-dollar reimbursement, the amount of state tuition reimbursement is offset by any other funds received.  In addition to strengthening the Tennessee National Guard, the STRONG Act will strengthen Tennessee’s workforce and economy and contribute to the Drive to 55.

Veterans / Making Military Training Count in Higher Education – The second law approved this year providing education opportunities for veteans  makes it easier for veterans to determine how their military training can count as credit in Tennessee’s colleges and universities.  The measure also grants in-state tuition to anyone currently living in Tennessee who is using VA educational benefits, regardless of their official home of record.  In addition, the legislation updates and enhances Tennessee’s Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) Act, which encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials.  It calls on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) to select representatives of various state colleges and universities by December 2018 to work collaboratively in adopting policies for Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) for veterans.

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