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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Benton: Legislature stepped up for our state’s veterans

The Columbian
Published: August 8, 2015, 5:00pm

While education clearly owned the spotlight in Olympia this year, the state Legislature continued its effort to protect and support our veterans — including the educational benefits they earned in defense of the nation.

The year was an historic one for the Legislature. Not only did it meet for one regular and three special sessions stretching a record 176 days, the end results were equally suited for the record books. Lawmakers passed an historic budget that included the largest college-tuition cut in the country and the first in state history. The budget also makes the largest dollar increase in K-12 spending in state history, with 47.5 percent of state spending going to K-12 — a level not seen in the last 30 years.

This unprecedented level of support for education was combined with increased support for mental health, those with developmental disabilities, and other key priorities — all without a general tax increase.

But in a year of historic education-driven accomplishments, it is important to also highlight some of the major legislative achievements in support of our veterans.

One is a new law aimed at helping disabled veterans and their dependents gain access to supplemental health coverage. Created by a bill I sponsored, it took effect July 24.

My legislation, Senate Bill 5974, addressed an issue in the federal Department of Veterans Affairs program commonly called CHAMPVA, under which families of veterans receive 80 percent coverage. Washington is one of only nine states where supplemental insurance is not available to offset some or all of the remaining 20 percent — meaning those become out-of-pocket costs.

SB 5974 directs the Office of the Insurance Commissioner to review barriers to attracting supplemental plans into the state and report on steps the state and the Department of Veterans Affairs can take to promote access to supplemental policies. The review and report must be submitted to the appropriate committees of the Legislature, the governor, and to DVA by Nov. 11.

Getting answers

Now that this measure is law, I hope we can finally get the answers our veterans deserve.

Another bill I was happy to sponsor for our disabled veterans is Senate Bill 5186. This measure assists veterans and disabled individuals and seniors by increasing the income limit for calculating property-tax exemption qualification.

This is valuable tax relief for our veterans, seniors and disabled individuals who have difficulty paying their property taxes and have incomes of less than $40,000. That’s a $5,000 increase in the income threshold and reflects the increased cost of health care, inflation and other expenses. This property-tax relief is long overdue and will help more than 100,000 of our seniors and disabled veterans stay in their homes.

This year the Legislature also passed a bill to help our veterans use their G.I. Bill benefits at state-run colleges and universities. Senate Bill 5355 changes the state definition of “resident student” to accommodate changes in federal law.

This culminates several years of hard work by Senate Republicans to make sure veterans continue to have access to our state colleges and universities. Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor and chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, introduced the bill and deserves a lot of credit for helping push the policy through the Legislature.

After years of effort, Washington’s veterans finally can rest assured that their education benefits will be protected in our state.

As lawmakers, and as individuals, we often voice our appreciation for the dedication, service and sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. These heroes deserve so much more than just our words, however. They deserve our actions.

In a year where education was clearly and understandably the focus, I — for one — am glad that time was taken to honor our veterans with these actions to help them and their families.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, represents the 17th Legislative District.