NY State Lawmakers united on new veterans services agency
|Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-Hudson, speaks at the Million Dollar Staircase in the State Capitol on Monday to encourage legislative leaders to include her bill to create a new State Department of Veterans' Services in the State Budget.|
New York lawmakers are coming together on at least one issue in this season of annual state budget negotiations. Representatives of legislative leaders expressed an eager interest to move a bill to establish a new state Department of Veterans’ Services — elevating the current Division of Veterans Services to a cabinet-level agency with a governor-appointed commissioner.
Veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, housing issues or other problems may have to apply to five or six different state agencies — including the Office of Mental Health, the state Office of the Aging, the Office of Addiction Services and Support, among several others — to access their earned benefits, leading to jumbled applications or funding distribution.
“... The benefits that you put your life on the line to serve our country, and that you deserve to be getting,” said Assemblymember Didi Barrett, D-Hudson, who sponsors the legislation in the chamber.
Barrett has served as the first woman chair of the Assembly’s Veterans Affairs Committee for nearly four years.
“It would be simply daunting for anybody to have to address that many different agencies to have your benefits met,” she said. “This is something that I believe New York state must, and can do, better at for our veterans and for our military families.”
The state’s Division of Veterans Services was established in 1945 for returning World War II veterans. The state has more than 800,000 veterans, with more than half over age 65, but only about 17% of the population access their benefits and eligible services under the current structure, which has remained unchanged over the last seven-and-a-half decades.
Dozens of lawmakers, veterans and advocates rallied in front of the Million Dollar Staircase in the state Capitol this week to push Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul and legislative leaders Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers; and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx; to include the bill to fund the new department in the 2022-23 Fiscal Year budget, which deadlines April 1.
“We look forward to working with our dedicated Chair of the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, Sen. John Brooks to make his crucial legislation a reality,” Senate Democrat spokesman Jonathan Heppner said in a statement Tuesday.
Assemblymembers swiftly moved the bill out of the Veterans Affairs Committee on Jan. 5. It was referred to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Jan. 25 and remains in the Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs committee in the Senate.
“We will discuss this issue with our members,” said Michael Whyland, spokesman for Democrats in the Assembly majority.
The current director of the Division of Veterans’ Services is a member of the governor’s cabinet.
“The Division of Veterans’ Services has been an invaluable resource delivering positive results for New York’s veterans and their families, and will continue to do so regardless of how the agency is structured,” a spokesperson with Hochul’s office said in a statement Tuesday. “Gov. Hochul has fought throughout her career to ensure veterans receive the support they deserve, and will continue working with stakeholders and legislators to address the needs of veterans across the state.”
Sen. John Brooks, D-Massapequa, said programs for veterans must be expanded and officials must work harder to reach out and help servicemembers.
“Our veterans are heroes from many wars ... many of them have faced different challenges,” said Brooks, who chairs the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee. “Many had dependency problems and mental health issues. We have veterans who are homeless, we have veterans who are looking for jobs. We need to recognize that it is time to elevate this department.”
The proposal is supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, with multiple co-sponsors from either chamber on both sides of the political aisle.
Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-Castleton, is a former captain in the U.S. Army Reserves, and completed a tour in Iraq and Afghanistan as a medical officer during his service from 2006 to 2014.
“When you think about what this legislation is aiming to do, you think to yourself, ‘How has this not already happened?’” Ashby said. “This is not a Democrat or Republican notion. This is the right thing to do.”
If adopted into law, all programs for New York veterans would be streamlined to one location and more easily accessible to servicemembers and their families. The new veterans-centered department would parallel the federal model and veterans’ departments successful in other states, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Flaherty, director of Veterans Services in Columbia County and a Vietnam combat veteran, rallied with lawmakers at the state Capitol on Monday. Flaherty advocates for veterans in Albany each year to urge legislative support and funding for veterans’ programs, including the Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer-to-Peer Program.
The bill would add language outlining the agency’s specific duties to coordinate outreach efforts to veterans to ensure they receive their entitled housing, employment, mental health, education and other benefits across state departments.
“Our veterans have sacrificed so much to serve all of us, and we must do better as a state when it comes to providing them with the resources they need to reintegrate back into civilian life,” co-sponsor Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, said in a statement. “I strongly support the creation of a Department of Veterans’ Services as one centralized office that will elevate the needs of veterans statewide and make critical program offerings more accessible to them and their families. I’m proud to co-sponsor this bill and will continue advocating alongside my colleagues until the Veterans’ Division is upgraded to full Department status so that every veteran receives the quality support they need when they return home to New York.”