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Lawmakers prepare to file veteran-related legislation

The Journal Record

November 7, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – As lawmakers prepare for bill filing season, members on the veterans affairs committees are working with that community to nail down which issues they plan to tackle during next year’s session.

Members work with staff attorneys throughout December to draft legislation. They need to know well in advance what problems they’re trying to solve and how policy would play into that.

Lawmakers with military experience tend to serve on those committees, and in 2017, several of them announced a bicameral veterans caucus, so members of the House and Senate can deliberate together.

One of the creators of that caucus, state Rep. Josh West, is also the House Veterans and Military Affairs vice chairman. He’ll be working on a spate of issues come January.

A few of those would affect taxes on veterans’ pay. During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers ended a long-held sales tax exemption on cars, which effectively raised a 1.25 percent tax on auto sales. Veterans are exempt from the excise tax, but not this sales tax. West said he hopes to work on a bill that would ensure their tax break applies to both.

With Oklahoma’s new alcohol laws, low-point beer went away. Domestic beers such as Bud Light and Coors are available only with the standard alcohol content, so they’re being taxed like other beers. This means that customers who were used to not paying the 13.5 percent alcohol tax are now paying more for their beer.

This change has raised some concern among the state’s veterans club cantina owners. Private organizations under Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., also known as VFWs, have small local chapters that offer services and social events to past and present service members. They often sell beer in their clubhouses.

West said the tax increase has concerned them because they often operate near casinos, which don’t have to pay the 13.5-percent tax rate.

“They’re worried they’re going to lose patrons,” he said.

Legislation could carve out exceptions for those cantinas.

Health care will be another focus. The Talihina medical center will always be a contentious topic, he said. The treatment facility made headlines after a few high-profile deaths, including one after which authorities found maggots in a man’s wound. The issue is contentious because one group, including members of the veterans caucus, argues that the center can’t be improved; its location is too remote to recruit good workers and the building, which was never intended to be a long-term care center, is too outdated. Others, such as state lawmakers who represent the area and economic developers in the town, insist that the state’s mismanagement is to blame and that the center can and should be saved.

Lawmakers approved a 2017 bill to seek an alternative location for the center, and the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs has heard several proposals from towns in the area.

Oklahoma veterans homes can accept Medicaid as payment, but not Medicare, West said. It decreases a patient’s options, and although that is problematic for anyone, it’s going to be especially problematic for a growing portion of Oklahoma’s veterans.

“There’s a lot of Cold War veterans coming up that didn’t see combat,” West said. “They get less money.”

State Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso, is a member on the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. Health has been his top priority for veterans bills too.

He sponsored an interim study this year that examined how lawmakers can help address Oklahoma’s veteran suicide rates, which are double that of Oklahoma’s overall population, according to state data. Resources already exist for them, he said, so that isn’t the problem. It’s getting people to use them.

He said that during his study, it became clear that many veterans who died by suicide had recently seen their primary care providers.

“It’s really just (the need to raise) awareness in the medical community that these people exist and how to connect them,” he said.

One piece of legislation he’s considering would require physicians to ask patients whether they have served in the military.

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