ST. PAUL, Minn. - Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday proposed giving all Minnesota military veterans access to job training programs through the GI Bill.
Under current law, only veterans who served after the Sept. 11 attacks and the families of deceased or certain disabled veterans are eligible for job training grants from the state of up to $10,000. On the eve of Veteran's Day, the Democratic governor said the grants should be available to veterans of all eras, and said greater access to new job skills could be particularly useful to Vietnam and Gulf War veterans.
The state has estimated an unemployment rate among veterans of between 8 and 16 percent, which at the top end is more than double the overall rate. Widening the availability of job-training "will help veterans get the education and training they need to find good jobs," Dayton said.
Dayton also said he would seek legislative approval for permanent funding for military honor guards at funerals of veterans. Recent state budget cuts had raised concerns that honor guard grants might be imperiled, and Dayton said his proposal would set a permanent state appropriation to free honor guard grants from being tied to discretionary dollars.
Larry Shellito, the state commissioner of veterans affairs, predicted that an influx of new military veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would underline the need to make sure older veterans still have access to government services and to make sure they remain fully integrated into civilian society.
"It is our mission to bring our veterans all the way home," Shellito said. He said many veterans from the Vietnam era in particular are poorly versed in the technological knowledge required in the current job market.
Shellito said about 380,000 veterans live in Minnesota. About 140,000 are Vietnam veterans, he said, and about 70,000 served in the Gulf War.
Extending the job-training benefits should not create greater strain on state finances; the most recent state appropriation for the program was $6 million, but only $1.5 million was actually tapped, with the rest set to flow back into the state general fund at the end of the state's two-year budget cycle.
Dayton said he expected bipartisan support in the Legislature for both initiatives.
Sen. Mike Parry, the Waseca Republican who chairs the Senate committee that oversees spending for veterans' programs, said he already discussed expanding GI Bill eligibility with Shellito and that he supports Dayton's request.
"I don't see a good reason for singling out one group of veterans over another," said Parry, who said he's also likely to get behind a permanent appropriation to ensure the honor guard program is available for all veterans' funerals.
Parry said several of his Republican colleagues are interested in extending another benefit to all veterans that's currently enjoyed only by post-Sept. 11 veterans: a provision that state agencies give those veterans preference in hiring decisions.