Stateline Story

War Veterans Benefit From New State Laws

Some war veterans in Oklahoma will no longer pay property taxes and others in New York will have an advantage in getting civil service jobs under new provisions that take effect in 2009. Veterans in California, meanwhile, have had help buying a home since November, under a new law there.

Voters in each of these states overwhelmingly supported ballot measures on Nov. 4 to approve these benefits by amending their state constitutions.

"Oklahoma is considered one of the most veteran-friendly states because of the number of benefits offered to veterans and their (spouses); but there are more things Oklahoma and all other states could do to help those who served," said state Rep. Scott Inman (D), who co-authored the latest Oklahoma ballot initiative and sits on the House Veterans Committee.

Most veterans get some basic federal benefits including health care, low-interest home loans, life insurance and tuition help. Every state also offers some benefits to veterans ranging from free or reduced tuition at state colleges or universities to tax breaks, among other things.

Oklahoma's new provision, which passed with 85 percent of the vote, exempts disabled war veterans or their surviving spouses from personal property taxes, beginning Jan. 1. To qualify, a veteran has to be head of the household and have an honorable discharge with a permanent disability contracted while on active duty.

Other bills that could reduce state revenue always have some critics, Inman said, but there was little opposition to the bill that led to this constitutional amendment.

California voters passed with 63 percent of the vote a proposal to allow the state to borrow nearly $1 billion to continue providing low-interest farm and home mortgage loans for veterans. California, which has offered the loans for 87 years, is among five states with similar programs.

The state has made more than 420,000 loans to veterans and expects to make 3,600 with money generated by the 2008 ballot measure, said Jerry Jones, chief of legislation and public affairs for the state Department of Veterans Affairs .

The few who opposed the ballot initiative feared that taxpayers would foot the bill if veterans defaulted on their loans. Jones said this has never happened because the state backs the bonds.

New York voters approved by 77 percent of the vote a proposal that will help disabled veterans score higher on exams for civil service jobs. As of Jan. 1, the state will boost scores based on the veteran's wartime injury.

"The higher the veteran is on the list, the more likely it is he or she will be hired," said Jim McDonough, director of the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs .

While Ohio already offers all veterans from any state free in-state college tuition, Republican lawmakers there passed a bill in December that would use the state's "rainy day" fund to pay for veterans' bonuses. The bill calls for bonuses up to $1,000 for those who served in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans serving elsewhere during the conflicts would receive up to $500. Family members of those killed in action would receive $5,000.

However, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) said he plans to veto the bill, and instead wants to fund the $200 million program by issuing debt though bonds.

Looking ahead, North Dakota lawmakers plan to take up a bill in the 2009 legislative session that grants in-state tuition to any veteran in the country who attends a public college in the state.