House advances bills to help military families; stimulus funding for state veterans programs pending

    State Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Bucks, speaks at a press conference on a veterans legislative package on June 9, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

    Veterans and their families could receive lower college tuition, expanded pensions, and be eligible for out-of-state hunting and fishing in the commonwealth under a package of 13 bills moving through the Pennsylvania House this month.

    The proposals are sponsored by members of the chamber’s Republican majority and Democratic minority. 

    House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said that the proposals were a small token of gratitude to those who had served at a Wednesday morning press conference.

    “Supporting our veterans is not a partisan issue, it is an American issue,” Benninghoff added.

    Eight of the bills passed the House this week, including:

    • Charging veterans their families in-state tuition to public and state-related universities as long as the family lived in Pennsylvania when they pay their deposit. Previously, they paid out-of-state tuition if they lived in Pennsylvania before starting school.
    • Lets active duty military members and disabled veterans use out-of-state hunting and fishing licenses in Pennsylvania
    • Allowing National Guard to aid in burial services at three national cemeteries in Pennsylvania, and increasing the daily team pay for veterans groups aiding in burials to $250.
    • Requiring funeral directors to inform county veterans offices when a veteran dies within 96 hours
    • Adds a voting member from the Navy Club, a group representing Navy, Marine and Coast Guard veterans, to the state Veterans Commission
    • Set up a network to coordinate state, county, and nonprofit programs that aid veterans

    The House also approved renaming part of U.S Route 20, which runs through Erie, as the Pennsylvania Medal of Honor Highway, and passed a resolution encouraging Congress to expand access to PTSD therapy for veterans.

    Those bills now head to the Senate. Benninghoff said he had confidence they’d be taken up.

    State Rep. Karen Boback, R-Luzerne, and state Rep. Chris Sainato, R-Lawrence, who are respectively the the chairperson and ranking Democrat of the House Veteran Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, also proposed putting $1 million of federal COVID-19 aid each into two separate veterans programs.

    The first program pays for members of the American Legion and other veterans’ organizations to visit veterans and help them fill out paperwork to receive federal pensions and benefits, said Sam Petrovich, a Navy veteran and chair of the state Veterans’ Commission.

    “And unlike the advertisements you see on TV by attorneys and other people, we’re free. We take nothing,” Petrovich said.

    The second program provides grants to charitable organizations that help veterans experiencing homelessness or address their mental health needs, among other issues.

    Proposals to use the $7.3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief Pennsylvania has received will be folded into the state budget, said Neal Lesher, spokesperson for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York.

    “We’re taking feedback from the members in terms of what their priorities are so we can put together a budget that matches the broad priorities of the members of the House,” Lesher said.

    A proposal to increase state pension payments to blind and paralyzed veterans by $50 also is pending as part of the package.