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Veterans are the focus of about 50 bills this session in Florida

TALLAHASSEE — As a retired Army Reserve brigadier general, Judge T. Patt Maney looks out for veterans who show up in his courtroom convicted of crimes at home after a tour of war.

Lawbreakers should get a sentence appropriate for their misdeeds, he said. But certain veterans deserve special evaluation.

"I'm just another broken solider," the Okaloosa County judge told choked-up senators at a March committee hearing.

Maney, 62, is the namesake of SB 138, which allows counties to develop jail-diversion programs for veterans charged with certain crimes as a result of traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance use stemming from military combat. Serving in Afghanistan in 2005, Maney suffered a traumatic brain injury, the signature affliction of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The idea is one of about 50 bills introduced between the House and Senate this session to benefit veterans and their families. The bills influence veterans' college admissions and tuition, property taxes, state parks admissions, driver's license fees and hunting grounds, among other things.

"You never know what's going to pass, but this is the largest number of bills giving benefits to Florida's veterans that I've ever seen," said William Helmich, a Florida lobbyist for Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

Even the state Department of Veterans Affairs is pleasantly puzzled by the effort. The agency is sponsoring five bills, including one that would establish Aug. 7 as Purple Heart Day (SB 765/HB 704) and one that puts a Florida Veterans Hall of Fame in the Capitol building (SB 520/HB 465).

"This year is a little different than usual," said agency spokesman Steve Murray. "(The bills) are just out there."

What's behind the outpouring of support — and why now? Maybe, Helmich said, lawmakers are more aware of veterans issues as a result of two long wars and in-depth reports about veterans' psychological trauma.

Lawmakers often repeat this goal: They want Florida to be the best state for veterans.

• • •

The jail-diversion bill addresses what Maney and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, its sponsor and a Vietnam veteran, say is an increase in veterans committing crimes. In Maney's courtroom, veterans are more commonly arrested on misdemeanor charges such as trespassing, open-container possession, marijuana possession, writing worthless checks, disorderly conduct and domestic violence.

Maney's injury got him a Purple Heart and 20 months of treatment in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It left him at times not knowing how to pump gas, write a check or navigate a grocery store. Other soldiers struggle with trauma disorders by self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, leading to encounters with police, he said.

The bill requires courts to hold presentencing hearings for certain convicted veterans who say their crimes happened as a result of psychological trauma connected to their service. If the court finds validity to the claim, the veteran would be eligible for treatment.

"Let's see if we can get them into a treatment program vs. a jail cell," Bennett said.

• • •

Other bills are meant to reward injured service members. Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, introduced SB 850, which requires the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to designate some hunting areas exclusively for use by "wounded warriors."

The department's forestry division already allocates a hunting area in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest to a group that sponsors hunts for injured servicemen and women. It has some special accommodations, such as turkey blinds accessible via motorized wheelchair.

This bill would require Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's agency to develop more hunting areas for disabled veterans. Putnam supports the bill and said his agency plans to find pieces of state land not open to the public for these veterans to use. The bill also allows his agency to accept donations for building handicap-accessible ramps and equipment.

"It's an opportunity for us to help in the therapy of these young men and women who are coming back," Putnam said.

• • •

Two college-related proposals may face opposition out of practicality.

SB 894, another Bennett bill, would allow veterans who lived in Florida four years before entering the armed forces to be admitted to any state bachelor's program of their choice. SB 826, sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, grants any veteran in the country the in-state tuition rate to attend one of Florida's colleges or universities.

Unlike most of the other veterans bills, though, these ideas ask for resources the state does not have, said Kelly Layman, spokeswoman for the Board of Governors. Florida already lacks enrollment slots for its residents, yet enrollment expands by 2 percent each year. Expanding access to Florida's famously affordable colleges and universities to veterans nationwide isn't fiscally possible, she said.

On Fasano's bill, Layman said Florida veterans often need help re-establishing residency to return to or enter a university and secure in-state tuition. But opening up the in-state rate to veterans nationwide puts more strain on existing access issues.

"These men and women ask for very little," Fasano said. "In fact, they seldom ask for anything. I think we have an obligation and responsibility to assist them when they come back from war."

Katie Sanders can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]

>> Fast facts

More veterans bills

Property taxes (SB 592/HB 439): Extends certain property tax breaks to disabled veterans 65 years or older who have a service-connected disability but were not Florida residents before entering the service.

State parks (SB 236/HB 95): Gives parents of deceased veterans lifetime annual entrance passes to state parks. The Senate version extends to parents of law enforcement officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty.

Elections violations (SB 330/HB 553): Punishes candidates who falsely represent themselves as military veterans during elections.

Veterans Day (SB 1062/HB 375): Requires schools to observe Veterans Day as a holiday and not hold classes.

Driver's license fees (SB 368/HB 123): Reduces driver's license fees for certain disabled veterans.

Veterans are the focus of about 50 bills this session in Florida 04/03/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 3, 2011 8:37pm]
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