- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers historically have drafted unusual legislation — often in emergency sessions — to help meet the demands of a state sending troops to war.

This year, elected officials, including the governor and the House speaker, are pushing a roster of bills benefiting servicemen and women and their families. They say now is the time, with 1,000 Maryland troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, to approve the bills. The state’s improving financial situation also may remove a longtime obstacle to getting some of the legislation approved, officials say.

“Everyone is attuned to what is happening to our young people in this war,” said Delegate Jean Cryor, Montgomery Republican. Her bill, an effort to give income-tax breaks to active, stateside troops, has failed twice before.

“If it’s ever going to have a chance, this is the year,” she said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, is making his Veterans Advocacy and Education Act of 2005 a priority in this 90-day legislative session. It creates scholarships for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their children. It also establishes a full-time veterans advocate, a type of ombudsman, within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The proposal requires the commission to report on its services annually to the General Assembly and creates a task force to determine whether the state is giving enough money toward veterans benefits, if veterans are getting their benefits quickly and if the state should establish a loan program or use state Medicaid funds to help veterans waiting for their benefits.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure they get their benefits,” Mr. Busch said.

A bill being proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, would give income-tax breaks to retired veterans on their pension benefits, said spokesman Henry Fawell.

“I think collectively we’re going to come to the decision that, yes, we need to help servicemen and women and their families any way we can,” said Sen. Andrew Harris, Baltimore County Republican, who has submitted three military-related bills.

The patriotic and bipartisan support of the bills doesn’t guarantee their passage, lawmakers said. Some may be combined and only partially approved. And as always, their cost is a primary factor. Maryland still faces a deficit in the coming budget year, but it is estimated to be about $300 million, less than last year’s gap of $800 million.

“If the cost is modest, the bills will have success this year,” Mr. Harris said. “And I think the governor will gladly approve them.”

They would give sales-tax exemptions to some veterans organizations and their auxiliary groups and give breaks to troops and their spouses who owe payments on state-sponsored student loans while they’re working on out-of-state military bases.

“We’re beginning to realize that with the war on terror, we’re in it for the long haul,” Mr. Harris said. “This is not something we’re going to win quickly or easily.”

Maryland legislators called emergency sessions in 1917, 1944 and 1950 to write laws needed during World Wars I and II and the Korean War.

Those measures gave absentee voting rights to troops, raised money to support war efforts, outlawed black-market food sales, banned terrorist activities and established military camps, according to researchers in the Department of Legislative Services.

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