Sunday, May 22, 2011

Louisana House committee says National Guard troops who were killed or disabled should receive state benefits

From The Times-Picayune:

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Louisiana National Guard troops who were killed or permanently disabled while on active duty in the early days of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan should be entitled to state benefits, the House Judiciary Committee said May 19.

The unanimous vote for House Bill 143 by Rep. Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans, a colonel in the Army Reserve, sends the measure to the full House for debate. The Senate has already passed a similar measure, Senate Bill 1, by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. Adley's bill is awaiting action in the House judiciary committee.

Lorusso said his measure will pay the survivors of 32 Guard troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan $250,000; it will also pay $100,000 in benefits to two Guard members who have been deemed totally and permanently disabled.

The bill is expected to cost the state $8.2 million this year, money that has been included in the state budget, said Dirk Thibodeaux, a Guard major and chief of staff to Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, Gov. Bobby Jindal's chief budget officer.

The Legislature in 2007 authorized the benefit payments based on federal guidelines. However, the law applied only to those killed from 2007 forward and did not apply to those killed or injured from Sept. 11, 2001, to 2007, a restriction lawmakers said was a mistake.

Guard officials said that between 2001 and 2007, a total of 32 troops were killed; since 2007, 12 others have been killed.

Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, chairman of the House Select Committee on Veterans Affairs, got the panel to amend the bill to apply to Guard troops who are not only killed, but who die in the line of duty.

Lorusso said Edwards' change is designed to take care of Guard forces who may be called up for hurricanes or flooding and die as a result of drowning or a heart attack while performing official duties.

The panel also amended the bill to spell out that the $100,000 in disability benefits should go to those who are also deemed to be totally unemployable as defined by federal guidelines, based on a final ruling by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Lorusso said his bill and Adley's are almost identical but differ based on the administrative process used and the nonwar death payments.

"It would be my hope ... that the two bills move forward together," said Edwards, chairman of the Democratic Legislative Caucus in backing the job Adley, a Republican, has done over the years for veterans as chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on Veterans Affairs.

"I think we should give him the respect he deserves" by advancing his bill, Edwards said. Adley is not on good political terms with Jindal, so his bill might not be signed by the governor if it reaches his desk.