Nebraska lawmakers expand veteran benefits

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — More Nebraska veterans will receive tax breaks, tuition benefits and a hiring preference for government jobs once a series of new laws go into effect.

Despite an often slow session, lawmakers have forged ahead this year with a series of proposals designed to lure veterans to Nebraska and keep them from leaving. Many of the benefits extend to family members and spouses.

"It's been a pretty good session," said Paul Cohen, a retired Air Force brigadier general from Omaha. "When you take a look at the broader picture over the last several sessions, I think we've seen more of a focus on veterans' issues. The Legislature and the governor have really worked to make Nebraska a more military- and veteran-friendly state."

Cohen, who represents the Military Officers Association of America, said Nebraska has traditionally lagged other states in its efforts to attract service members who are leaving the military.

He pointed to the state's lack of tax exemptions for military retirement pay. Kansas, Colorado and Missouri already offer varying exemptions, and South Dakota and Wyoming have no state income tax. Lawmakers approved a bill this year that will let recent retirees choose between a partial exemption for seven years after they leave the service or a smaller tax break for the rest of their lives once they turn 67. The bill could benefit more than 14,000 military retirees in Nebraska.

"It's not a perfect bill, but it's a good first step," Cohen said.

Many of the issues arose from an interim study that looked at ways Nebraska could make itself more attractive to military families and recent retirees, said Sen. Sue Crawford, of Bellevue. Business groups, led by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have launched a campaign to draw veterans and military retirees to the state.

Crawford, whose district includes Offutt Air Force Base, sponsored a bill this year that allows veterans and their families to qualify immediately for in-state tuition if they have left active duty within the last two years. To receive the benefit, they must establish residency in Nebraska and register to vote.

College groups that work with veterans viewed the bill as a high priority because it's designed to help veterans make the most of other benefits, Crawford said. She pointed to the federal Post-9/11 GI Bill, which only covers the cost of in-state tuition at public universities.

"It's a key issue in terms of being able to recruit people to our state, have them go to school here and then stay here to work," she said.

Cohen said the state still has work to do to help military retirees transition into the civilian workforce.

For many professions, he said, Nebraska doesn't recognize training and licenses earned through the military. The lack of recognition forces workers to run through additional training and university courses to qualify. The problem surfaces occasionally for dental technicians, teachers and nurses, he said.

"The perception is that we're not particularly friendly in granting licenses and certificates to people to have that military experience," Cohen said.

Lawmakers made surprisingly good progress on a bill that will allow more veterans to qualify for homestead exemptions, said Greg Holloway, who represents the Disabled Veterans of America and Vietnam Veterans of America.

"This has been one of the best years I've seen" since the 1990s, said Holloway, an Army veteran who lives in Bee, Neb.

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Grant Schulte


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