Senate in a Minute from Senator Bill Ketron for March 10, 2017

NASHVILLE — Numerous bills aiding veterans were approved by the State Senate this week, including two major proposals to expand access to education.  The Senate Education Committee approved the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act that would create a pilot program to provide eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard tuition funding toward a first time bachelor degree through a tuition reimbursement program, while the full Senate passed legislation that will make it easier for veterans to determine how their military training can count as credit in Tennessee’s colleges and universities.

The STRONG Act provides an opportunity for those who protect and serve their state and country to receive their bachelor’s degree, a move that gives Tennessee’s National Guard a competitive edge in recruitment.  As a last-dollar reimbursement, the amount of state tuition reimbursement is offset by any other funds received. To be eligible, the individual must be currently serving with the Tennessee National Guard in good standing, have applied for federal tuition assistance, and be admitted to any Tennessee public community college, public university, or private college or university which is regionally accredited.  The student must maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0.

The new proposal making it easier for veterans to determine how their military training can count as credit, calls for creation of an Internet dashboard where service members can click on the specific military occupational specialty he or she possesses to see what academic credit they qualify for at each of Tennessee’s public institutions.  The easy-to-use system will help recruit and keep military service members in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 1232 also grants in-state tuition to anyone currently living in Tennessee who is using VA educational benefits, regardless of their official home of record.

Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many Bears Grinder told members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week, on which I sit, about her department’s efforts to expand veteran access to education.  The department has hired three veteran education coordinators to work in the three grand divisions of the state, working with the colleges and universities to make sure that they are better equipped to recruit, retain, and support veterans through graduation.  The department is also conducting Veteran Education Academies to strengthen campus networks through improved data collection, information sharing and utilizing best practices to address transitional challenges that veterans face.  Grinder said more of Tennessee’s campus partners are demonstrating their commitment to increase the number of veterans with college degrees or certificates.

The department is also working to inform soldiers transitioning out of the U.S. Armed Forces of opportunities here, so they can choose Tennessee as their home state.  High achieving soldier have skills and disciplines that are desired by employers Grinder said.

Veterans / Employment — In other action on veterans this week, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee approved a bill 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.

Senate Bill 209 gives companies that would like to give special consideration for hiring 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.

Veterans / Yellow DOT Program — Legislation advanced in the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee this week that extends 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.  Senate Bill 1304 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.

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