NEWS | Aug. 21, 2020

New laws benefit DMA, veterans with disabilities

By Mike Vrabel JFHQ-VA

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ceremonially signed into law two bills benefitting the Virginia Department of Military Affairs as well as veterans with disabilities during a virtual bill signing ceremony Aug. 4, 2020. 

With his signature, House Bill 990 and Senate Bill 745 were signed into law during the video conference, held online instead of in person due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The conference included Virginia Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs Carlos Hopkins and Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia. The two bills’ sponsors, Virginia Del. David A. Reid and Virginia Sen. John J. Bell, also participated. 

Both bills highlight the work Virginia’s officials and lawmakers are doing to make sure Virginia leads the charge in veteran care, said Northam.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure Virginia is the most veteran-friendly state in the country,” said Northam. 

The first bill singed was Reid’s HB 990, which formally transferred oversight of DMA from the secretariat of Public Safety and Homeland Security to Veterans and Defense Affairs. The change was originally made with a Governor’s executive order in 2018, but Reid’s bill made the change permanent within the Code of Virginia. 

“While our members are currently in uniform, we know eventually they’ll become our veterans and retirees,” said Hopkins. “Having both DMA along with the Department of Veterans Services within the same secretariat gives them access to all of those transition services, education benefit services and everything they’ll need as they transition from uniform into veteran status.” 

“This helps to be able to streamline the reporting process,” said Reid, the bill’s sponsor. “It helps to create efficiencies as state National Guard and state Veterans Affairs deals with the federal level. I think it’s really important because it makes government more efficient and it makes government more responsive to the needs of the veterans as well as the National Guard.”

The benefits of the move are already evident, according to Williams. 

“Being a part of the Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs has been a great move,” Williams said. “We’ve already seen extraordinary progress on a lot of fronts, and we’re very excited about the future.”

Next, the governor signed Bell’s SB 745, which provides an income tax forgiveness for veterans who have a 100% disability. In 2019, a presidential memorandum was issue, automatically forgiving certain student loan debt for veterans with total and permanent disability. Generally, forgiven indebtedness is treated as income for tax purposes, but this bill prevents the eligible veteran from paying taxes on the cancelled student loan debt. 

“This bill is near and dear to my heart, having served in the Army and taken care of a lot of wounded Soldiers,” said Northam. “For those who are totally disabled, to be able to forgive their loans and also to make sure that they’re forgiven of their state income tax is a big deal. To put it into the code of Virginia is very important.”

“When we see a way to make a veteran’s life better, when we work together to do it, it’s so important,” said Bell. “For those who have made huge sacrifices and suffered disabilities while serving our country, it’s so critically important that we help them to prosper in life. If they’re able to get educational benefits and those benefits are given, the last thing we want to do is charge them tax on that.”

“The last thing these severely disabled warriors need after having their student loans forgiven is an unexpected state tax bill,” said Mike Saunders,  the director of military and consumer policy for Veteran Education Success. “They’ve sacrificed so much in defense of our country, and I’m proud to see my home, the Commonwealth of Virginia, taking care of our people to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude.”

“I put in an executive order in 2018 to transfer the oversight of our National Guard, and also the Virginia Defense Force, from the Secretary of Public Safety to the Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs,” Northam said during the video conference. “This is so much more efficient and communication’s going to be a lot better.”