The first half of May saw an impressive stack of legislation benefiting New Jersey veterans signed into law. State lawmakers representing Atlantic, Cape and Cumberland counties were key sponsors of the bipartisan bills.
Of the seven measures that became law, two stand above the rest.
On Thursday, Gov. Chris Christie signed the Wounded Warrior Caregivers Relief Act, which will provide a tax credit to the many family members who are caring for veterans totally disabled by active-duty injuries that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. The governor said it would ease the financial burden on families and “show our appreciation for the many sacrifices they have made.”
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, one of the sponsors, said two wars for more than a decade have made caring for post-9/11 veterans “a massive economic and societal undertaking.” Lawmakers pointed to a 2014 RAND Corp. study that estimated 1.1 million civilians are providing care to those veterans. Twelve percent are providing more than 40 hours of care per week.
The refundable credit — no taxes paid needed — is equal to the qualified veteran’s disability compensation up to $675. Caregivers must have lived with the service member for at least six months of the year, and household income must not exceed $100,000 for joint filers and $50,000 for individuals.
The month started with Christie signing a bill providing more critical help, but to a smaller number of veterans. It creates a statewide Veterans Diversion Program to steer eligible military service members who have committed nonviolent offenses away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate case management and mental health services.
People taken into custody will be asked if they currently or previously were in the U.S. military. If so, the law officer will operate with a preference for sending an eligible service member to a county veterans diversion resource center or other community-based mental health services in lieu of filing a criminal complaint.
The program will pair eligible veterans with volunteer mentors recruited by the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. If they comply with the program’s requirements, they could have their charges dismissed.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who sponsored the bill, said in a January guest commentary that federal statistics show about half of all incarcerated veterans have been told by mental-health professionals they have a mental-health disorder.
Other veteran-related laws, most also sponsored by veterans and Assemblymen Bob Andrzejczak and Bruce Land, will:
• Create an information site for Gold Star families;
• Require the DMVA to ensure surviving beneficiaries of veterans are notified of benefits;
• Retain civil-service exam eligibility for reserve and National Guard members in active service;
• Develop an online list of New Jersey locations with historic military significance;
• Permit eligible students who are members of the U.S. armed forces to wear their dress uniforms at high school graduation.
That’s a lot of good, bipartisan work on behalf of veterans in New Jersey, and all put in the law books in less than two weeks.