House Bill 1173 started out as the vehicle for Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs legislation. Leaders of all major veterans organizations supported it. But the bill that came out of the General Assembly’s recently ended short session was amended at the last moment over objections of the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and other groups representing Indiana’s 400,000 veterans.
“Recent actions taken to amend House Bill 1173 on second reading on the floor of the Indiana Senate were disappointing and disrespectful to Hoosier veterans,” reads a “Call to Action” signed by leaders of eight groups. “For such a major change to be made without public input and with such opposition from the veteran community is troubling.”
The 11th-hour changes are part of a pattern revealing the Republican supermajority’s deference to special interests and political supporters. HB 1173 originally included a residency requirement for County Veteran Service Officers, a requirement veterans advocate Lisa Wilken said is necessary to ensure those working with the state’s veterans and active military members and their families are the best qualified. In addition, the legislation ensured the county official had to be a veteran.
But Hamilton County officials, reportedly intent on hiring someone who did not meet the requirements, prevailed. Veterans were told to stand down.
“It came up at the last moment. It was ramrodded through,” said Jay Kendall, president of the Indiana Veteran Service Officers Association. “What we want to know is why are we trying to take a job away from a veteran? It’s the veterans we are trying to help. And yet, we’re saying you don’t have to be a veteran to do this job that is the most essential for veterans.”
The legislation, amended after the opportunity for public testimony, removed the requirement that a county veteran service officer be an Indiana resident for at least two years and also allows someone who has served for at least two years as an assistant county veteran service officer to serve in the top position, even though the second in command is not required to be a veteran.
Both Wilken and Kendall agreed there is no shortage of Indiana veterans qualified to do the job.
Kendall, an Air Force veteran who has been Miami County’s service officer for 20 years, acknowledged the disconnect between lawmakers’ claims of supporting veterans and what happened with HB 1173.
“It makes me wonder,” he said. “I’ve got to say there are bigger issues than just the eligibility of an assistant veteran service officer. Going around all of those issues and taking this issue up at the last minute for unknown reasons doesn’t make sense to me.”
Indiana voters should wonder, as well. House Republicans, including all GOP members of the northeast delegation except Huntington Rep. Dan Leonard, who did not vote, supported the changes opposed by the veterans groups. Whom are they serving?
The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne