‘They fought for us, so we fight for them’: Michigan Dems rally to support veterans

By Kyle Kaminski

November 9, 2023

Saturday is Veterans Day—but Democratic lawmakers have been working to support Michigan veterans all year long.

MICHIGAN—More than a century ago, President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed Armistice Day, commonly recognized as Veterans Day, on Nov. 11, 1919. It was a day dedicated to honoring US military members and their families, and to commemorate the end of World War I. 

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a law designating Nov. 11 as Veterans Day.

And every year since, Michigan’s governor has followed suit to proclaim the day as an official statewide holiday that’s designed to pay respect to the contributions and sacrifices of the country’s 19 million veterans—including the more than 530,000 veterans who live in Michigan. 

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration, this year is no different. 

But included in that traditional Veterans Day proclamation from the governor this year was also a renewed commitment to stand up on behalf of veterans and their families—”just as they have made a brave choice to protect all of us.” Whitmer also vowed to keep fighting to support newly returning vets, those with housing or mental health needs, and historically underrepresented veterans, including women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of color.

“Our veterans and their families serve our nation and stand up for our values. They have sacrificed so much to ensure that we can all enjoy the freedoms we cherish and live good lives,” Whitmer said in a statement this week. “That’s why we are united—across the state and party lines—on investing in veteran health care, housing, economic opportunity, and so much more.”

How are Michigan’s leaders actually working to support veterans this year?

Here’s are some of the highlights:

Property Tax Exemptions

In Michigan, disabled veterans who were discharged from the military (under honorable conditions) are eligible for a property tax exemption. And under state law, when the veteran dies, the tax exemption can also carry over to the veteran’s “unremarried surviving spouse.”

State officials said long-running legal disputes over how that tax exemption should work, and whether it should follow the spouse or a particular piece of property, have created uncertainties for veterans and their families—and that the recently signed legislation will officially clear the air.

In October, Whitmer signed new laws to clarify that the tax exemption will remain available to the property owned and used as a homestead by a surviving spouse after the disabled veteran’s death, regardless of whether or not the spouse has moved to another property altogether. 

“Veterans have selflessly sacrificed for our country and this legislation ensures those sacrifices continue to be honored when they return home,” state Sen. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Township) said in a statement. “Senate Bill 330 will make a tangible difference in the lives of disabled veterans and their surviving spouses, removing barriers to this financial relief.”

The old state law required veterans and their spouses to request the exemption on an annual basis. Under the new law, veterans (and their spouses) only need to file one request in order to receive the tax exemption. And according to a legislative analysis, the changes will also likely allow some veterans and their families to receive exemption claims that were previously denied.

“This is a crucial piece of legislation that seeks to address the challenges faced by disabled veterans and their surviving spouses in accessing property tax exemptions,” state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) said in a statement. “With this new law, we are making a lasting impact.”

Tuition Assistance

Legislation signed by Whitmer in May made it easier for Michigan National Guard spouses and their children to earn an affordable college degree or professional certificate—no strings attached.

By expanding the funding cap for the Michigan National Guard Tuition Assistance Program from $10 million to $15 million, thousands more Michigan veterans—as well as their children and spouses—have been able to attend college or technical school at a steep discount this year.

The program, which was first established in 2014, offers Michigan National Guard members $14,400 annually in assistance for those obtaining an associate or baccalaureate degree, or up to $6,000 annually for those earning professional certificates or a master’s degree. At many schools in Michigan, that assistance is enough to cover the full cost of tuition. The additional benefits are also poised to help boost recruitment efforts for the Michigan National Guard.

US Army Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers said the new bill—which was introduced by state Rep. Jennifer Conlin (D-Ann Arbor) in March—signals that Michigan leaders are “serious” about supporting military families in return for their “significant sacrifices” on behalf of the state and the nation.

“The law will fulfill a dual purpose: directly providing opportunities to service member spouses and dependents and tackling the challenge of recruitment and retention head-on through the offering of this incentive,” Conlin said in a statement after the bill was signed this year. 

After Whitmer signed the bill, the National Guard Association of the United States presented her with the Charles Dick Medal of Merit, which recognizes elected officials who support the military. 

Job Opportunities

Since taking office, Whitmer has also boosted outreach to veterans and signed legislation that ensures they and their families have affordable healthcare and housing, and job opportunities.

This month, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency and the state’s Civil Service Commission also announced plans for a new initiative to waive Michigan’s requirement of a bachelor’s degree for many state jobs for military veterans who have completed at least two years of active service.

Military members gain valuable skills and knowledge through their service that can’t be replicated in a classroom, and that experience should be considered when applying for jobs,” Whitmer said in a statement. “I encourage veterans who qualify to take advantage of this.”

State officials said many state departments also have policies in place to assist veteran employees—including eight that have been named “Gold-level Veteran-Friendly Employers” for their steadfast commitment to military veteran recruitment, training, and retention practices. 

Up to five years of seniority credits for military experience are also offered to new hires in state jobs to allow them to earn a higher starting salary, additional time off, and longevity bonuses.

“Michigan will always keep its commitment to service members, veterans, and their families,” Whitmer said in a statement this week. “They fought for us, so we are going to fight for them.”

Resources and Support

Since Democratic lawmakers gained majority control of the state Legislature this year, they’ve moved expeditiously to tick through a lengthy list of long-sought policies from the Whitmer administration that will benefit veterans, and until this year, had been stymied by a state legislature filled with Republicans.

Beyond investments that have created thousands of new job opportunities for veterans, taxes have also been slashed for more than 500,000 retirees, and more than 700,000 lower-income families got a big tax break in the latest budget to pass through Lansing.

Whitmer has also signed bills to protect healthcare for millions of Michiganders. And last month, a series of bipartisan bills were introduced in the state House of Representatives specifically to help ramp up mental health services—and provide better healthcare—for Michigan’s veterans.

The bipartisan plan would reportedly establish a new Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention within the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, as well as create a new statewide outreach program on mental health and substance abuse for service members and veterans. 

In addition to providing more resources and support for veterans and their families, including a new one-on-one mentorship program, the legislation would also create a transition program for all Army and Air National Guard members in the state as they navigate back to civilian life. The bills—House Bills 5276, 5277, 5278, 5279, and 5280—have since been referred to a committee.

In September, Michigan lawmakers also reportedly called on the federal government to better prioritize research and investment in “non-technology treatment options”—including psychedelic substances like mushrooms—as a way to treat psychological trauma from military service. 

Funding included in last year’s state budget also earmarked $34.2 million in state funds to help build a new nursing home for veterans in Marquette, according to reports in the Detroit News.

READ MORE: Slotkin pitches bills to expand resources for military veterans and families

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

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