Legislation would assist vets in DOT contracts

The Economic Division has been working closely with Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania to introduce a bill which would allow for the inclusion of veteran-owned small businesses to participate in set-aside contracts at the state level. Rep. Fitzpatrick ignited a bipartisan push Thursday with Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois to ensure our nation’s veterans play a critical role in rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure with the introduction of the Fairness to Veterans for Infrastructure Investment Act.

"Our fighting men and women are the most highly skilled workforce in history," said Fitzpatrick. "We must leverage their unprecedented skills to get our economy moving once again."

Bustos added: "Rebuilding our nation’s transportation infrastructure is one of my top priorities and is absolutely essential to growing our economy and creating jobs. The brave veterans who served us so honorably deserve our full support and that starts with making sure they have good-paying jobs here at home."

The Fitzpatrick and Bustos Fairness to Veterans for Infrastructure Investment Act, H.R. 2906, would provide veterans with access to existing contracting preferences authorized for transportation projects. Specifically, this bill would apply to the re-authorization of the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act," known as MAP-21, which provides over $100 billion of federal funding for highway and transit projects across the country. The Fairness to Veterans policy was unanimously amended to FY 2012 VA/MilCon appropriations and became law. The policy was unanimously amended to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012 representing over 60 percent of the federal discretionary budget, and to FY 2013 VA/MilCon appropriations.

"The American Legion emphatically supports Rep. Fitzpatrick’s Fairness to Veterans for Infrastructure Investment Act. This legislation would offer some redress by helping to ensure equal opportunity for veterans by expanding their participation in Department of Transportation contracting opportunities. Our gratitude also goes out to Rep. Cheri Bustos for agreeing to introduce this important legislation jointly," said American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz. "Veterans have already achieved significant small business success, and many have taken advantage of the Legion’s small business workshops. But barriers remain and not all veterans receive the same opportunities to prosper as other small business owners do."

More than 250,000 servicemembers are transitioning each year from the military to civilian life. One in four veterans say they want to start a business, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA). While 2.4 million veterans own a business according to the most recent Census, many would likely hire fellow veterans if given the opportunity.

In other news:

Korean War armistice: On July 3, American Legion staff participated in the ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. The sacrifices and struggles of American forces in the Korean War was remembered and honored during a ceremony at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington; President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel shared their words with several hundred Americans who gathered to thank those who served in Korea. Many veterans’ service organizations, including The American Legion, and Department of Defense representatives presented wreaths at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Visit to Texas: The Economic Division visited the Texas Veterans Commission (TVC) July 29-30 in Austin and San Antonio. The TVC has the best record in the nation for placing veterans in the job market. In addition, the Legion visited Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston to speak with their TAP/Wounded Warrior Unit representatives about employment issues facing servicemembers, along with how effective are current federal programs that assist veterans as they transition out of the military.

Working with Easter Seals: Economic Division staff met on July 26 with Phil Panzarella, chairman of the board, Easter Seals (Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.), to discuss the group’s new veterans initiative. Discussion also centered on working with the Legion on a greater scale, which includes addressing veterans unemployment at the state and post level. Easter Seals has been helping individuals with disabilities and special needs, and their families, live better lives for nearly 100 years. From child development centers to physical rehabilitation and job training for people with disabilities, Easter Seals offers a variety of services to help people with disabilities address life’s challenges and achieve personal goals.

Homeless project: The first phase of an innovative project for Kansas City homeless veterans has secured financing and construction should begin soon. U.S. Bank said it is providing more than $17.7 million in financing for the first phase of the St. Michael’s Veterans Center, which is designed to meet a broad spectrum of homeless veterans’ needs on 22 acres near 39th Street and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, just southeast of the VA Medical Center.

The project is being developed by Catholic Charities and Yarco, a development company specializing in multifamily housing. Officials hope the first phase will be completed by next May, providing 58 one-bedroom affordable housing units. Ultimately, supporters envision a $34 million complex with about 180 units of affordable housing in three buildings, plus a service center with case management, mental health care, job training and other services.

The financing came through the U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corp., a subsidiary of U.S. Bank. Kansas City housing officials have spearheaded the project for several years and have overseen mass grading of the site. The city has also issued a contract to build the street improvements needed for the development. "Everything is coordinated and coming together," said Stuart Bullington, who runs the city’s housing and community development division. Construction is expected to begin soon and a formal groundbreaking may be in September.

Resolution No. 306 (passed at the 94th National Convention) states that:

  • The American Legion renewed its commitment to assisting homeless veterans and their families;
  • The American Legion continues to support the efforts of public and private sector agencies and organizations with the resources necessary to aid homeless veterans and their families; and,
  • The American Legion seeks and supports any legislative or administrative proposal that will provide medical, rehabilitative, and employment assistance to homeless veterans and their families.

Bills gain approval: On Aug. 1, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a mark-up hearing to approve a number of veteran-related bills for further action by the full House. Among the measures approved, all by voice vote, were:

  • H.R. 813, the Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013. This measure would require advance appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) discretionary accounts. These accounts include: Medical and Prosthetic Research; the National Cemetery Administration; Native American Veteran Housing Loan Program; general operating expenses; information technology systems; the Office of the Inspector General; major and minor construction projects; and grants for the construction of state extended care facilities and veterans’ cemeteries. It would require the VA secretary to submit to Congress an annual Future-Years Veterans Program that details estimated expenditures and proposed appropriations for the department for the current and four succeeding fiscal years.
  • H.R. 1443, the Tinnitus Research and Treatment Act of 2013. This legislation would direct the VA secretary to recognize tinnitus as a mandatory condition for research and treatment by VA’s Auditory Centers of Excellence. Additionally, it would direct the VA secretary to ensure VA facilities conduct research into the prevention and treatment of tinnitus.
  • H.R. 2011, the Veterans’ Advisory Committee on Education Improvement Act of 2013. This bill would extend the Veterans’ Advisory Committee on Education by two years until Dec. 31, 2015. The committee advises the VA on how to improve educational and job training programs. This measure would also expand the committee’s membership to include veterans of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • H.R. 2189 would establish a 15-member commission to evaluate the backlog of disability compensation claims within the VA. Commission members will be appointed by the House and Senate leadership, the president, and the VA and DOD secretaries. The bill would direct the commission to examine the current process used by the VA to evaluate claims and appeals, as well as provide an analysis of the most effective means to resolve all pending claims.
  • H.R. 2481, the Veterans G.I. Bill Enrollment Clarification Act of 2013, would codify the election requirements for veterans to receive education assistance under the Post 9/11 Assistance program. As amended, the bill would establish the Veterans Economic Opportunity Administration within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The administration would be responsible for overseeing programs related to vocational rehabilitation and employment programs, veterans’ housing loan programs, veterans’ small business programs and educational assistance programs.

In the Senate: On Aug. 1, the Senate passed a pair of veterans measures by unanimous consent:

  • An amended H.R. 1344, the Helping Heroes Fly Act. This measure would update the Wounded Warriors Screening Program established in 2005 to let disabled veterans and severely injured servicemembers request expedited screening from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The bill would direct the assistant secretary of Homeland Security for TSA to develop ways of easing airport screenings. Nothing in the bill would prohibit more security screening of a servicemember if law enforcement officials deemed it necessary. As amended by the Senate, the bill – unlike the House version – would not allow expedited screening for family members accompanying the veterans and service members. The bill now returns to the House for approval as amended.
  • H.R. 1171, the Formerly Owned Resources for Veterans to Express Thanks for Service Act of 2013, or the FOR VETS Act of 2013. This measure will allow veterans groups to receive donations of surplus federal property, such as vehicles or electronics, for the full range of services that they provide. The proposal addresses limitations on the kinds of donations that veterans’ organizations may accept for free. Under the Federal Surplus Personal Property Donation Program, veterans groups, and other private agencies that serve the public, can accept surplus equipment or supplies at no cost if the donation will be used for health or educational services. Supporters of the bill say veterans groups provide a range of services beyond just public health or education, but currently they have to pay for surplus property related to those other services. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

House Committee on Foreign Affairs: Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa

On Wednesday, staff attended a hearing hosted by the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa regarding Iran and Syria. The hearing, on the eve of the inauguration of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani, focused on Rouhani’s past positions on the Syrian conflict and Iran’s nuclear program reveal about possible policy changes, if any, under a new Iranian government, and recommendations for the appropriate U.S. policy response.

A webcast of the hearing can be found here.

Claims: During the week ending July 26, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals reached dispositions on 130 American Legion represented appeals. Of those dispositions, 70.1 percent of the denials were overturned with outcomes favorable to the veteran. In 36 cases, the board granted benefits outright after considering The American Legion’s arguments. In 56 cases, The American Legion was able to point out errors in the development of the veteran’s claims which mandated corrective action under the law. Of the total number of dispositions, 28 (21.5 percent) were outright denials.