The proposal would expand the state's GI Bill to include older vets.
Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday proposed expanding the state's GI Bill to include older veterans, in an effort to jump-start job skills training to reduce high veteran unemployment.
The state's military education program now provides a stipend only to veterans who have served since 9/11.
Dayton and Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito said they will propose the state open up the program to include Vietnam, Gulf War and peacetime vets. The money will come from existing funding that has gone unused. Only about $1.5 million of a $6 million appropriation is now being used.
The proposal comes as Minnesota and the nation struggle to address the significant problem of veteran unemployment. Minnesota veterans had an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, significantly higher than the statewide jobless rate of 6.9 percent.
Although the expansion of the education program won't affect them, the level of unemployment among the state's Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is even higher, nearly 23 percent, the third highest in the country in some reports.
President Obama made putting veterans to work a cornerstone of his recently announced jobs plan. Obama has proposed tax credits of up to $4,800 for employers who hire vets and up to $9,600 for hiring a wounded vet.
"One of the ways we can be of the most assistance to veterans is to expand the Minnesota GI Bill to veterans of all ages, which will allow [the unemployed] to go back to the colleges and universities to get the retraining or additional training necessary" to land a job, Dayton said.
At a daylong jobs summit convened by Dayton last month, talk about the gap between hundreds of unfilled Minnesota jobs and potential workers without the proper skills also illustrated the struggle.
Opening the GI Bill to older vets, which will require legislative approval, is expected to consume an additional $1 million a year, Dayton said.
The state's GI Bill usually is a last-resort after other benefits are exhausted or expired. It provides $1,000 per semester, $3,000 per state fiscal year, and a lifetime cap of $10,000 to qualifying vets.
Shellito said the program is not designed to fund entire college educations but to provide stop-gap training for vets who might need additional schooling to obtain a diploma or to get certification or licensing in a trade.
The issue will continue to be a short-term concern as two wars wind down.
"We are going to receive a tsunami of veterans coming back to Minnesota," Shellito said. "Coupled with the existing veterans, it is going to be absolutely critical that we get a holistic system in place to take care of all veterans."
Vietnam vets fading away
There are about 380,000 veterans in Minnesota. Of those, 140,000 are Vietnam veterans, 70,000 are from the Gulf War, and 107,000 are peacetime, or Cold War, veterans. In Minnesota, the bubble of Vietnam veterans is so huge that the state's veteran population is actually projected to dramatically decrease, from a total of almost 372,000 today to a little more than 194,000 in 2036.
Besides the education proposal, Shellito said the state is working at reducing the barriers to obtaining licensing and certification for vets.
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
In addition, Dayton announced the state will seek to permanently fund military honor burials. The state previously provided a stipend to local veterans groups that performed those functions.
Last year, a supplemental authorization was appropriated, but that funding ended in June. The initiative, which also will require legislative approval, would provide ongoing funding at a rate of $50 per funeral to charted veterans organizations that provide the honors.
The only things they want
It is estimated that about 10,000 vets die a year in Minnesota, and that 72 percent of veterans do not receive any other type of Veterans Administration benefit.
"Some of my friends say there are only two things they ask for, and that is a flag on their coffin and a bronze marker on their grave site, and we will be doing that," Shellito said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434