AUGUSTA, Maine — A bipartisan group of lawmakers is backing a bill that would award a “welcome home bonus” to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The proposal is modeled after a similar law in Massachusetts, where soldiers from conflicts dating back to World War II receive a cash payment for their service. The Maine bill proposal is sponsored by Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, and supported by nine other lawmakers, including four Republicans.
Members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee were receptive to the bill, but many wondered how the state would pay for it. Rotundo had similar concerns, but said it was important to bring the issue forward.
Rotundo said she wanted to give returning service members assistance. She said she was also mindful of the economic challenges the state faced.
“It’s important to bring these issues forward before the Legislature even if it’s most likely we won’t be able to fund it,” Rotundo said.
The bill would pay active service members $1,000 after completing their first deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan and $500 for each additional deployment.
According to testimony from Peter Ogden, director of the state’s Bureau of Veterans Services, the bill would cost an estimated $17.5 million through fiscal year 2013. The estimate accounts for about 19,000 eligible veterans who have served in those conflicts, a cost of about $14.5 million. The bureau also estimates that 1,950 veterans will be eligible as they return over the next two years, at a cost of about $1.5 million.
Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, who served 18 months in Afghanistan, said the gesture was appreciated, but it could be trumped by the state’s fiscal realities.
Others worried about jealously among veterans from other conflicts because Maine hasn’t paid bonuses to soldiers since World War I.
In 1920, the state paid World War I veterans $100 each after voters enacted a constitutional amendment via citizen referendum. The state paid more than 32,000 veterans at a cost of about $3.2 million.
In 1945, the Legislature attempted to use cigarette and liquor taxes to pay bonuses to Maine’s 112,000 World War II veterans. However, that measure was struck down by voters 109,450 to 60,544.
Rep. Doug Damon, R-Bangor, said officers should be excluded from the proposal in order for him to consider it. Others simply worried that the bill would be too costly.
“I think our hearts are probably all in the same place,” said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, adding that he worried the proposal would create an expectation the state couldn’t fulfill.
A work session for the bill had not been scheduled.
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