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Among veterans in Legislature, a drive to help returning troops

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PHOENIX – As a retired Marine, Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he knows how challenging it can be for veterans transitioning back to civilian life.

“We owe it to them to try and give them something to get them back into society, so they’re not just collecting unemployment, and to allow them to use the talents they picked up to put them to work,” he said.

Borrelli authored two bills aiming to help veterans by transferring military education to everyday jobs and adding to education benefits offered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

His bills are among at least 12 introduced this session to help veterans get jobs, college educations and more. Of those, four have received committee approval.

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, who served in the Army and National Guard, joined Borrelli and others to form a Veterans Caucus in January. He said bills supporting veterans have bipartisan support.

“We’re not only sitting in a room patting ourselves on the back for our bills, we’re talking to stakeholders and connecting veterans to organizations that they may not have known about,” Cardenas said.

David F. Lucier, president of the Arizona Veterans & Military Alliance, said that because of the caucus veterans issues have the support and understanding of legislators who can educate their colleagues.

“I would approach a legislator before with an idea, and they would say no because it would cost too much money,” Lucier said. “But with the Veterans Caucus, they actually hear the idea and see what they can do.”

Borrelli authored HB 2076 to allow servicemen and -women to quickly earn licenses and certificates for civilian jobs.

“How can you argue that our hospital corpsmen and medics that can work as a nurse in a military hospital can take care of our wounded warriors, but they can’t take care of my mother?” Borrelli said.

If his bill were to become law, veterans would only need to take the written test, such as a driving or medical test, if they already have the education and hands-on experience.

“If you can dodge IEDs and RPGs, I think you can dodge traffic,” Borrelli said.

The Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs Committee unanimously endorsed the bill, forwarding it to the floor.

Borrelli authored HB 2420, along with another former Marine, Rep. Jonathan Larkin, D-Glendale, to create a state fund that would help veterans for a year after the 36 months of education benefits provided by Post-9/11 run out. However, that bill didn’t receive a committee hearing.

“I think our veterans have paid more than their fair share in service to this country, and I think we owe it to them to make that transition from the military life to the civilian life,” he said.

Cardenas, meanwhile, authored a bill that would give businesses a tax break for hiring veterans.

Under HB 2484, a business would receive a $2,000 tax credit for hiring a veteran and $4,000 for hiring a disabled veteran. The credit would remain in effect through 2015.

“This is about people who decided to lay their lives down for us,” he said. “Everyone is connected to the military in one way or another because our family or friends are in the military. This affects everyone.”

The Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs Committee unanimously endorsed the bill, forwarding it to the Ways and Means Committee.

“The time is right,” he said. “We have the support. We decided this was the right thing to do.”

Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, authored HB 2025 to create a Fallen Hero special license plate. Funds from purchasing the license plates would be used for scholarships assisting veterans.

The full House approved Ugenti’s bill, forwarding it to the Senate.

Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, authored SB 1116 to create a special license plate honoring and benefiting disabled veterans. The Senate Transportation Committee endorsed the bill.

Among other bills that didn’t receive committee hearings, Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, authored HB 2391 to exempt military pensions from state taxes. All other sources of income would still be taxed.

“I believe our veterans and their families have been asked to sacrifice enough already,” he said.

Another, SB 1381, authored by Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, would have required colleges and universities to award veterans and current service members 30 credit hours in military history.

Of all the bills, Lucier said Cardenas’ on tax credits for hiring veterans would the most helpful.

“I don’t mean to minimize the effort of any of the bills. It’s great that they could get the licenses, but what’s next?” Lucier said. “They need to get a job.”