Special military benefits hot issue for Utah senators

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 8:54 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Special benefits for military families has been a hot topic in the state Senate the past few days. And perhaps no one was hotter under the collar than Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins.

The Plain City Republican on Wednesday blasted HB116 and SJR8 that would create a property tax exemption for soldiers placed on active duty, calling bill sponsor Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, a "bleeding heart" in the process.

On Thursday, he voted against HB263 that would allow working spouses of active duty soldiers who are transferred to another state to obtain unemployment benefits if they leave Utah.

Jenkins didn't get as exercised over the latter measure, but he didn't hold back on the property tax exemption.

Soldiers, he said, know what they're getting into when they enlist and already receive "lots and lots and lots of advantages."

"We give them all kinds of breaks. We pay for their clothing. We allow them to shop at the PX," said Jenkins, who served 7 years in the National Guard. "And now you're forcing me, your bleeding heart is saying, 'OK, Sen. Jenkins, we want you now to pay for their taxes.' Well, I'm saying enough."

The Senate ultimately approved all three measures after some sharp back-and-forth. Because the tax exemption is proposed as a constitutional amendment that voters would have to approve in November.

If the approximately 1,600 active military members in the state received the exemption, it would result in a $2.1 million property tax loss, according legislative fiscal analysts. Due to truth in taxation, about 901,000 property owners who are not active military members would see a corresponding tax increase.

Owners of a $250,000 home would pay about $1 more in taxes should the amendment pass, fiscal analysts say.

"Truly, this is a small way of saying thank you as a state," Robles said in Senate floor debate Tuesday. "I don't think it's a huge burden."

On Wednesday, retired Army Gen. Peter S. Cooke called on Gov. Gary Herbert as commander-in-chief of the Utah National Guard to denounce Jenkins' "shocking diatribe."

"Hill Air Force Base is adjacent to Jenkins' district. These men and women are his constituents," said Cooke, a Democratic candidate for governor.

"Sen. Jenkins talked about our soldiers like they're gaming the system. It was an attack on our American heroes, who protect our freedoms, day in and day out, on battlefields around the world."

Questioned later, Jenkins didn't back away from his comments, though he conceded "I probably got a little emotional." He said he apologized to Robles.

The issue Thursday was whether spouses who quit their jobs to follow their active duty spouses who are transferred from Utah should be to collect unemployment benefits.

"It's to keep families together," said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, Senate sponsor of HB263. "I think we owe that to them, this little pittance."

Not all senators, however, shared Mayne's view. Unlike in the House, the bill did not pass unanimously. The vote was 23-6 and it now goes to the governor.

Sen. Casey Anderson, R-Cedar City, said the bill sets a bad precedent and would lead to other areas of service receiving unemployment for voluntarily quitting a job. "If you work for the FBI, you often have to change locations," he said.

Utah touts and prides itself on being family friendly, and providing the benefits shows that, said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.

"This is a message bill and the message is we support men and women who are called to active duty and we support their families," he said. "We need to stand up and tell these brave men and women that we've got their back and we're going to support them."

The cost is virtually immaterial, Bramble said.

Legislative fiscal analysts estimated 49 people would obtain the benefits, costing the state $185,000 over the next three years.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said the spouses of enlisted people have to work because the government pays military servicemen and servicewomen so little. Families are on food stamps and under tremendous financial, emotional and physical stress, he said.

"I suppose there is a limit for what we do for them, but we are far away from that limit," he said.

Email: romboy@desnews.com >Twitter: dennisromboy

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