AUGUSTA, Maine — A pair of bills that would add three staff members to Maine’s Bureau of Veterans Services sailed through the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday with unanimous approval.
The bills, one that seeks to make the bureau the lead agency on tackling the issue of homeless veterans, were the result of a 2015 commission set up to study ways to reach more of the state’s estimated 140,000 veterans.
Lawmakers who backed the changes said they need to continue to advocate for the legislation to ensure funding by the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee. An estimated price tag for the legislation has not yet been determined.
“This is a situation of clearly drawing lines and saying this a priority for the Maine Legislature — to take care of veterans,” Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, said.
Collins, who was a co-chair of the special commission, said the issue of homeless veterans in Maine is one that resonates with him.
Collins and Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, whose legislation in 2015 created the commission, are members of the committee.
“For whatever reason, they may have fallen into despair and they are homeless. And we have to draw a line and make sure these folks, men and women, have the necessary tools to get back on their feet,” Collins said. “And the first part of getting back on their feet is a place to sleep.”
As amended, the bills, LD 1611 and LD 1612, add two new veterans service officers to the bureau, who will be mobile and able to go to where veterans are instead of being based at a specific location. A third position, which would be filled by a person qualified to serve as a veterans service officer, would be the bureau’s coordinator on homeless veterans issues.
Golden said the homeless coordinator is a necessary position, as the state has no single entity that focuses solely on homeless veterans. He told his fellow committee members — some of whom worried the new position would duplicate efforts of other agencies or organizations — no entity focuses just on homeless veterans in Maine.
Maine has seven veterans service officers, who work with veterans to help them obtain various benefits including gaining eligibility for federal Veterans Administration health care and disability benefits.
One of the commission’s findings was that the ratio of veterans service officers to veterans in Maine was far below that of other New England states. Massachusetts has one veterans service officer for every 12,000 veterans; Maine’s ratio is one to 20,000.
The legislation, if funded, would bring Maine more in line with its New England neighbors, Golden said.
The committee Wednesday also amended the bill that addresses homeless veterans to eliminate a provision that would have created an interagency council on homeless veterans. Instead the responsibility was assigned to an existing state council on homelessness that includes representatives of the state’s housing authority and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, among others.
The law change also would require the Bureau of Veterans Services to assign a member to that existing interagency council.
The legislation also provides resources for the bureau so it can move toward an electronic records system, improving efficiencies for veteran service officers and allowing them easier access to records and cases. Currently, the bureau largely uses a paper records system.
The legislation also makes marketing and outreach to Maine veterans a core responsibility of the bureau, so the state’s veterans can be readily identified and supported through the bureau’s services.
Golden, a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, ushered through the bill that led to the review of the bureau and then advocated for the bills the committee approved unanimously Wednesday.
He said he was satisfied with the committee’s votes Wednesday, but he feels there is still more work to be done to help ensure Maine’s veterans are made aware of and have access to their benefits.
“This was a unanimous committee action that would provide the Bureau of Veterans Services with resources to better serve all veterans and builds capacity within the bureau to provide leadership in the effort to end veteran homelessness,” Golden said in a text message Wednesday.
A separate bill also approved unanimously by the committee makes changes to state laws that allow Maine residents who are veterans, disabled veterans or who are still serving on active duty to have free access to the state’s parks and beaches.
The bill, based on recommendations from the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, would allow free day use of state parks to all Maine veterans and their spouses and dependent children. The proposal also would make clear that family members of deployed active duty military members could access state parks without charge if they carried military dependent identification cards.
The change also would allow 100 percent disabled veterans to continue to receive free camping privileges at state-operated campgrounds.
The legislation faces additional votes in the House and the Senate.