Hearing Statement – Veterans’ Benefit Legislation

Statement by the National Governors Association
Submitted to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
United States Senate
“Pending Benefits Legislation”
June 12, 2013

On behalf of the nation’s governors, thank you for the opportunity to comment on an issue of great importance to leaders at all levels of government – supporting our nation’s veterans and their families. Governors are leading the way to strengthen and improve veterans’ access to benefits and services they have earned while protecting our country, and they appreciate the opportunity to provide input on legislation pending before the Committee.

In recent years, thousands of men and women have returned from overseas deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and are making the transition back to civilian life. Unfortunately, many returning service members are experiencing difficulty accessing the benefits and services intended to assist them with the transition.

For instance, although veterans and returning members of the military bring valuable and unique experience to the civilian workforce, federal data shows that unemployment rates for veterans who served after September 2001 are higher than unemployment rates for non-veterans. This is a reversal of historic trends that show veterans discharged before September 2001 with a lower rate of unemployment than non-veterans. At the same time, a multitude of existing programs to assist veterans and their families in areas such as workforce development, education and health care face significant challenges with federal red-tape, poor records management and insufficient coordination between agencies at all levels. The Administration, Congress and governors all have taken notice and initiated efforts to help veterans find and maintain employment, but numerous challenges remain.

Across the country, governors are leading statewide efforts to address the considerable challenges many veterans and their families face after they leave military service. They have initiated important legislative and policy changes to remove barriers and ease the path to educational opportunities and employment for veterans and their spouses.

The National Governors Association (NGA) is working to support governors’ efforts and to identify and share state best practices to address veterans’ workforce and education issues head-on. In June 2011, NGA surveyed states and territories regarding support programs offered to members of the military and their families during both their active military service and during their transition to civilian life. Many of these programs were specifically aimed at combating veteran unemployment and providing them with technical assistance after their discharge. Several surveys conducted in the intervening period have similarly shown significant progress at the state level to better serve veterans and address some long-standing deficiencies in benefit programs at all levels of government.

Through this research, it is clear that states are dedicating resources to assist veterans and integrating state-level programs to provide more localized and personal services. Across the country, governors are proposing a host of new or improved state programs to facilitate veterans’ access to state and federal benefits and services, address housing and homelessness, meet the specialized needs of those with disabilities and enable access to long-term employment and educational opportunities.

A report detailing states’ survey responses and examples of state programs is attached.1 Highlights from the report include:  

  • Facilitating Employment Transition – Service members on active duty are the beneficiaries of extensive high-quality training that prepares them to perform a wide range of occupational specialties, some of which have direct equivalents in the civilian workforce. Several states have enacted laws to help transitioning service members attain the corresponding civilian credentials and licenses in their occupational field. For instance, in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles to waive the road test requirement for veterans who were seeking to obtain a commercial driver’s license and had prior experience driving trucks during their military service. IllinoisLouisianaOklahomaWashington and Wisconsin all have created similar programs to aid licensing and skill transfer in a variety of industries.
  • Supporting Military Spouses – Military spouses face similar occupational licensing impediments as they relocate from one state to another because of a military transfer. Governors in many states, including KansasMarylandNevada and Wisconsin have created new laws or programs to streamline credentialing processes and remove barriers preventing military spouses from transferring occupational licenses to their new state of residence. More than half of states have enacted or proposed legislation that provides temporary licenses for a military spouse while they complete additional requirements or await verification. In addition, most states also provide unemployment compensation for military spouses who are unemployed as a result of a military transfer.
  • Addressing Housing Needs – An increasing problem facing many states has been the unique housing needs of veterans and their families and those at-risk for homelessness. To assist those facing these difficult challenges, a number of states have created or expanded comprehensive support programs for homeless veterans. Similar to new programs in New Jersey and VirginiaIllinois Governor Pat Quinn recently committed $4 million to build a housing development that will provide housing and supportive services, including job training and coaching, for up to 80 homeless veterans using a variety of state and federal funding sources. The Delaware State Housing Authority recently concluded a “Loans for Heroes” program where qualified U.S. veterans received a one-half percentage point reduction in their mortgage interest rate.
  • Improving Outreach to Veterans – For many veterans or those about to exit from active duty, simple improvements in outreach and access to information about the education programs and employment opportunities available to them would provide the means for a successful transition. To better connect veterans to the civilian workforce, many states have launched or expanded career services. ConnecticutMaryland and Oklahoma all created web-based job portals specifically for veterans. To foster employment opportunities, many states also have created programs and proposals to incentivize employers to hire veterans. AlabamaIllinois and New Mexico now offer a tax credit to employers who hire a veteran, and other states are considering creating or expanding state veterans hiring preference.

These examples, as well as those discussed in the attached report, illustrate that just as each veteran has unique needs, each state is facing different challenges to better serve veterans. As governors take steps to improve veterans’ benefit programs and services, they are prioritizing actions based on the individual’s needs and resources available in their state or territory.

It is worth noting that the majority of states have a central coordinating entity to address veterans’ issues. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” governance solution, in comparison to federal programs, states have cleaner lines of authority, higher expectations for meaningful collaboration and governance structures aligned to achieve shared services.

NGA supports governors’ efforts to better serve veterans through several initiatives to identify and promote productive federal solutions to accelerate and support state-led policy.

For example, NGA is a member of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Veterans Employment, Training, and Employer Outreach (ACVETEO), which is tasked with providing recommendations to the Secretary of Labor about how to improve employment outcomes for the nation’s veterans. NGA serves as chair of the ACVETEO Subcommittee on Federal Coordination through which it is leading efforts to highlight federal barriers to veterans’ employment and providing recommendations for legislative and regulatory solutions.

In October 2011, NGA reached out to governors to solicit feedback on their federal priorities to address remaining service gaps. As part of that outreach, governors were asked to identify their specific federal requests and priorities to better serve the employment and training needs of veterans.

In August 2012, NGA deployed a comprehensive “Veteran’s Survey” to all states to gather key information on effective state best practices, inform federal advocacy efforts to reduce red tape that is a barrier to serving veterans and devise federal solutions to scale, accelerate or replicate effective state best practices. NGA asked respondents to answer questions regarding definitions, governance, funding, state priories, federal barriers, federal solutions and emerging areas of interest.

As a result of the extensive feedback NGA received and in conjunction with the 2012 survey, the ACVETEO Subcommittee on Federal Coordination developed a list of nine key recommendations for federal actions that can help eliminate, reduce and streamline federal red tape and bureaucracy to better serve the employment and training needs of America’s veterans:

  • There should be a single definition for what constitutes a veteran for purposes of qualifying individuals for basic services (e.g., home loans, tuition, access to health care).
  • Federal agencies serving veterans, such as the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Labor, and Veterans’ Affairs Administration (VA), should identify areas where enhanced collaboration would reduce administrative and regulatory barriers and create greater efficiencies for veterans’ services.
  • The federal government should maintain accurate and up-to-date veteran records in one central location that may be shared easily between DoD and VA, as well as other relevant agencies, including state veterans departments and workforce agencies.
  • Federal agencies should be required to provide detailed quarterly reports to Congress and the Administration on the total number of veteran’s claims filed and total number of claims processed, disaggregated by state, race, gender, age and length of processing.
  • Congress and the Administration should fully restore the 15 percent set-aside in the Workforce Investment Act so states may continue to use funds for critical employment and training services to veterans, their families and businesses that hire veterans.
  • Congress and the Administration should work to de-compartmentalize and authentically align veterans’ services across all federal agencies to ensure veterans are receiving the best assistance available and to reduce redundancy and inefficiencies within federal agencies.
  • The federal government, starting with the Transition Assistance Program, should work with states and communities to enhance outreach to veterans, including providing a comprehensive electronic database with accurate and up-to-date listings of federal benefits, job opportunities and educational resources.
  • Federal training programs should be aligned with state or industry certifications and licenses to keep veterans competitive in the workforce. In addition, DoD should share their training methods so that states and other accrediting bodies can identify gaps in training and develop programs to bridge military training with civilian credentials and licenses.
  • States should be given increased flexibility with regard to Disabled Veterans Outreach Program (DVOP) and Local Veterans’ Employment Representative (LVER) resources to fully meet the needs of veterans, including allowing resources to be used for spouses and veterans’ families. 2

These recommendations will serve as the basis for a report to the Secretary of Labor and Congress on the specific strategies to improve the employment outcomes for veterans.

Today’s committee hearing will review a number of legislative proposals that address many of the issues reflected in the nine recommendations above. As the Committee considers these bills, governors ask that several key principles for federal action are kept in mind to help ensure that federal legislation enables further progress at the state and local level and does not reverse gains already made.

  • Veterans’ needs are not “one size fits all.”  Through NGA’s work in this area, it is clear that veterans need and deserve additional federal training and support to be equipped to compete in today’s job market. Yet, there is no easy solution to the challenges faced by veterans and a “one-size fits all” approach at the federal level will not adequately meet veterans’ needs. For these reasons, it is essential that changes to programs take place with the understanding that the support required by each veteran is unique to each individual. State and local leaders and businesses are best situated to assist veterans in this regard. Diverse needs require diverse solutions and veterans’ needs change based on a number of key factors including both demographics and location. Federal policy changes should provide states with increased flexibility to create efficiencies and achieve results.
  • Avoid shifting costs to states and unfunded mandates. While it is important to encourage states to take steps to address these challenges in the near-term, federal legislative proposals that include withholding federal grant funding in order to compel state action are ill-advised. Continuing fiscal challenges at the state level and reductions in federal funding has put significant financial pressure on these programs. Congressional lawmakers should also be aware of the adverse impact of passing unfunded mandates to the states. Any new unfunded or under-funded federal mandates would simply put further pressure on already stretched state budgets and could have an adverse impact on the progress already being made.
  • Congress should exercise “legislative restraint.” With all of the positive actions taking place to improve programs for veterans at the state and local level, the nation’s governors ask that Congress and this Committee exercise “legislative restraint” and craft federal policies with an eye for the future. Federal legislative actions should address broad-based issues of efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of veterans programs and related issues. This includes providing better coordination between federal and state agencies in the management and administration of programs. More importantly, states can vastly improve their support of veterans and their families by receiving better access to accurate and timely information and efficient and rapid transfer of records and processing of claims.

It is important that federal legislation not rush to address problems identified in a few states at the expense of productive efforts in many other states. Prescriptive federal mandates are not a recipe for success for the long-term when what states require is a framework that is flexible and allows further innovation and improvement at the level where veterans and their families are served. Serving our veterans is a partnership among governments at every level, and federal legislation should encourage the most productive and collaborative federal, state and local relationship possible. These issues can be further illustrated upon a review of two key issues the NGA would like to highlight as part of its testimony.

Veterans are often prevented from holding civilian jobs similar to those they were trained for and held in the military because they lack specific civilian certifications or licenses. For example, a service member with direct and relevant aircraft mechanic experience may be prevented from working for an airline simply because they lack Federal Aviation Administration certification. Similarly, a military nurse or field medic is given similar, if not more extensive, medical training than is required of their civilian counterparts, yet that training does not always count toward certification for employment purposes.

Federal training programs should be aligned to offer veterans the opportunity to obtain state or industry certifications in order to keep them competitive in the job market. Flexibility to ease license requirements in certain circumstances also should be granted. While states must reserve the right to establish their own licensure and certification standards, where federal standards exist, military training must be aligned to ease soldiers’ re-entry into the workforce. Furthermore, DoD must make public and/or share directly with states and national accrediting bodies, information about the programs of instruction for certain military occupation specialties. This information would allow states and certifying bodies to identify gaps in training and develop programs to bridge military training with civilian credentials and licenses. This basic lack of information creates an unnecessary hurdle for state, local and industry leaders.

With regard to S.492 and S.495, NGA is working with governors and states to gather feedback. NGA looks forward to providing further information to the Committee in the weeks ahead. While states were encouraged by the intent of the legislation, states also raised concerns that, as written, the bills would stifle state innovation, undervalue veterans training experience for industry certifications and, for some states, actually create hurdles and barriers for veterans to be employed in a specified field.

Several states forwarded concerns that the requirements of S.492 and S.495 do not provide flexibility to states based on their unique and separate licensure requirements for different occupational fields. For instance, some states do not require an actual examination for certain occupational licenses and credentials. Therefore, states question if a requirement for an examination for all occupational fields, as the bill language currently requires, is either necessary or appropriate.

Likewise, several states also have raised concerns with the bill’s 10-years of relative military experience minimum eligibility requirement. As proposed, this standard exceeds several existing state requirements and would exclude a significant number of veterans from the benefits of the legislation. The 10-year limit should be a ceiling, not a floor, for determining eligibility.

In contrast, many states have enacted laws that are more expansive than those proposed in S.492 and S.495. In fact, in recent years, governors are making great strides to push legislation or executive orders to further address state licensure and certification barriers in state law: 3

  • Forty-one states already have passed legislation or have measures in place to address service member licensing. This includes allowing state licensing boards to recognize active credentials from another state and waive gaps in training requirements.
  • Thirty-six states already have passed legislation on addressing licensing for military spouses. This includes providing temporary licenses for military spouses while they complete additional requirements or await verification.

NGA also continues to support state efforts to address this issue through its NGA Center for Best Practices (NGA Center).  The NGA Center is partnering with the Department of Labor Veterans Employment Services (VETS) on a two-year veterans licensing and certification project. Working with a small group of states, this project is intended to identify and eliminate barriers to the transfer of veterans’ skills gained in military service to civilian work.  Although the scope of the project is limited to just six states, the goal of this new and exciting research demonstration will be to inform other states and federal policy with the best practices to address licensing and credentialing challenges of veterans and their spouses. This project will be a unique opportunity for policymakers at the state and federal level to understand the challenges in this area and how legislative and policy solutions can be better tailored to meet the unique requirements of each state’s licensing and credentialing process.

Across the country, veterans and their families rely on the federally supported Workforce Investment Act (WIA) one-stops to receive much needed employment and training services and supports. From coast to coast, states report that the WIA 15 percent set-aside has been essential to provide services and supports to veterans, their families, and to attract businesses committed to hiring this nation’s veterans. For example, California used the WIA 15 percent set-aside to provide training and specialized employment services to more than 2,200 veterans.  Massachusetts used the WIA 15 percent set-aside to provide direct services to 7,742 veterans. Washington used the WIA 15 percent set-aside to attract a new manufacturer, Profile Composites, committed to hiring veterans and individuals with disabilities. Of the veterans who finished the program, 81 percent found work and are now receiving paychecks and civilian benefits in high-wage jobs in clean energy and other growing industries.

Unfortunately, in recent years, Congress and the Administration significantly reduced the 15 percent to 5 percent, a reduction of more than 70 percent for most states. In 2012, the tide turned as Senate and House appropriators, sought to correct this error. Those efforts were undone in the Continuing Resolution (CR).

Though bicameral, bipartisan support for reestablishing the set-aside is evident, the reduction in flexible federal funds has already negatively impacted state services to veterans. The reduction resulted in the elimination of employment and training services to jobseekers, including veterans, at a time when those services are critically needed. Veterans’ family members and potential employers have been impacted, programs were downsized, and ultimately, some programs were terminated in states.  The WIA 15 percent set-aside for statewide activities supports state innovate and critical employment and training services to veterans, their families and businesses that hire veterans.

While governors appreciate the growing recognition by Congress and the Administration of the value that the WIA 15 percent set-aside holds for job seekers and businesses, governors continue to call on Congress to fully restore the 15 percent set-aside in the FY 2014 appropriations bill or the next CR. This simple action must be part of solution to help veterans.

Across the country, state and local leaders are working together to redesign government, balance budgets and ensure that the skills and assets of the nation’s veterans are put to work back home. Regardless of where they reside, governors firmly believe all veterans must have equal access to federal benefits and services and that the federal government must collaborate with states to achieve this goal.

Our veterans need a stronger, better-coordinated and more efficient federal-state-local partnership to meet their growing and challenging employment needs. The current stand-alone, disconnected and fragmented federal programs spread across multiple agencies, must be integrated, aligned and consolidated to ensure that the customer – veterans – truly get the support and services they deserve.

Now is a critical time to redesign and reform the federal government’s employment and training services for the nation’s veterans. Yet, there is no easy solution and a “one size fits all” approach at the federal level will not adequately meet veterans’ needs. Instead, federal policy should support, accelerate or advance state-based policy solutions and provide governors with more flexibility to improve or expand the programs and services offered to veterans in their states.

Governors view the federal legislation being discussed today as the beginning, not the end, of the process and their efforts on behalf of veterans and their families will continue. This includes working closely with this Committee as it considers legislation to make the nation’s veterans’ programs more efficient, accountable and responsive.

1 For additional information please see the attached NGA report on state veteran initiatives compiled by NGA’s Center for Best Practices.

2 For additional information please see the attached memo from NGA and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA), to the Secretary of the Department of Labor.

3 Updated figures on state legislature activity provided by Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense for Military Community and Family Policy.