AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday signed into law a bill that’s meant to strengthen and modernize Maine’s Bureau of Veterans Services as well as provide state community college and university tuition to members of the state’s National Guard.

The legislation, largely based on recommendations from a special commission created by the Legislature in 2015, was later amended to provide tuition waivers for Guard members who are in good standing with their units.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, sponsor of the 2015 law that set up the special commission, along with Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, who sponsored the tuition waiver legislation, worked together to garner broad bipartisan support for the bill signed by LePage.

LePage vetoed legislation that set up the commission, but the Legislature overrode the veto in 2015.

“Today is a great day for the Mainers who serve our country,” Golden said after the bill was signed. “So many people came together to make sure we ease the transition from military to civilian life. We now have a law that helps us do that better and truly honors the contributions of Maine servicemen and servicewomen.”

Farrin, a 30-year member of the Air National Guard and an Air Force veteran, said the new law puts Maine on the same playing field as other states in the region.

“Maine was the only state in New England that did not offer any type of tuition assistance to our Guard members,” Farrin said. “Today, thanks to a true bipartisan effort, we offer one of the best educational incentives.”

Among other things, the legislation provides about $2 million a year to add staff, specifically three new veterans service officers, to the bureau so it can better connect with and assist Maine’s estimated 140,000 veterans as they seek the services and benefits they are entitled to under state and federal laws.

Brig. Gen. Douglas Farnham, Maine’s director of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Services and the state’s National Guard adjutant general, along with several members of the National Guard, attended the ceremony with LePage. Other Maine veterans who served on the special commission also attended the ceremony.

“This is a tremendous day for the Maine National Guard,” Farnham said. “The tuition bill will go a long way toward recruiting and retaining our Maine National Guard force and keep our talented men and women here in Maine where they belong. We are also grateful for the additional resources that will allow the Bureau of Veterans Services to better serve all Maine veterans.”

Golden, a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, pushed for review of the bureau after a series of meetings he and other members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee had with veterans across Maine.

From those meetings, Golden said, it became clear that the state’s most recent and youngest veterans felt disconnected from the bureau and many had little information about services available to them to help with everything from higher education and employment training to health services offered through the federal Veterans Administration.

Of the four new positions the legislation brings to the bureau, one will be dedicated to improving and coordinating outreach and communication with Maine veterans.

The bureau estimates it has contact with only about 65,000 of the state’s total veteran population, one of the highest per capita in the U.S.

The other three new staff will be added to the bureau’s existing veterans service officers, who work directly with veterans to help them identify and receive the benefits they earned through their military service. One of those new veterans service officers also will be tasked to focus on Maine’s homeless veterans population. A key finding of the commission’s work was the lack of a dedicated state agency or individual that focuses on the issue of homeless veterans.

The other two new veterans service officers will be mobile and able to go to veterans where they are in order to help them.

The new law also provides funding to modernize the bureau’s antiquated paper-only records system with a computer-based system that will allow the bureau to better share information on the veterans it serves.

“I am proud to sign this bill into law,” LePage said in a prepared statement after the signing ceremony, which was closed to the media and the public.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.