Proposals to help Utah's war veterans will come from both sides of the aisle during the upcoming legislative session including one bill that would pay $500,000 to families of fallen Utah National Guard soldiers.
Using Veterans Day as a backdrop, Democratic senators and Republican Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, announced plans to run bills that aim to financially assist Utah soldiers and their families, especially survivors of those killed in war zones.
Both bills would grant tuition waivers to immediate survivors of those killed while on any active duty, including reserve or National Guard soldiers. Each bill also would offer other assistance for the families of deployed, disabled or fallen soldiers.
Potentially the most costly proposal would come from Hughes, who wants the state to pay $500,000 to the families of fallen Guard soldiers. The death benefit would be on top of the $100,000 the federal government gives to the family of a service member whose death is a result of hostile actions in a designated combat operation or combat zone or during training for combat. In addition, the federal government recently increased the maximum payout in the service members' group life insurance program from $250,000 to $400,000.
The burden on Utah National Guard members, many of whom Hughes said assumed their duty would be a weekend-per-month commitment, seems to grow every day. As one unit returns, another leaves to fight a war thousands of miles away. Utah currently has 1,817 National Guard and Army Reserve members serving on active duty.
Instead of responding to local disasters, he said, those Utahns are fighting against insurgents and securing election sites in Iraq. They are gone for months at a time, and families are left behind to fend for themselves.
"Our National Guard is deployed more than ever before. It's just an extremely different role for the National Guard now," he said. "We have to step up and help them, appreciate their sacrifice and help these families that are being impacted more than ever."
Hughes also plans to include a provision giving a utility credit to families of deployed service members, as well as a tuition waiver for dependents of fallen Utah National Guard members at any of the state's public universities. Democrats also plan a tuition-waiver bill.
Along with the full tuition waiver for the immediate family of those killed in action, Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, wants to give a 50 percent reduction to the dependents of disabled veterans, which would complement a Hughes-sponsored bill passed during the past general session, which gave tuition waivers to Purple Heart recipients. McCoy intends to seek an appropriation to cover the costs of the waiver, which he hopes will get the support of higher education officials who already struggle with funding 15 other waivers.
"It's an investment in people and the work force of the future," McCoy said in a telephone interview following the news conference. "We want to make sure that these families can continue contributing to society."
Along with McCoy's bill, Democrats announced the formation of the Utah State Democratic Veterans and Military Families Caucus to provide an opportunity for the public and decisionmakers to talk about cuts in veterans' benefits spending and other issues."This day, we join together for a noble purpose: to champion the cause of veterans by honoring their sacrifices and dedicating our talents to this endeavor," said Larry Daniel, chairman of the Iron County Democratic Party and a veteran of the first Gulf War.