Usually, the mere mention of "veterans" is enough to get elected officials elbowing each other out of the way in a contest to see who supports vets the most.

But the seven Republicans on the Atlantic County freeholder board seem strangely reluctant to approve a veterans set-aside program for county contracts.

We'd sure hate to think that the Republican freeholders - or Republican County Executive Dennis Levinson, who usually gets whatever he wants from the freeholder board - simply object to the fact that the two Democratic freeholders, Colin Bell and Charles Garrett, came up with the proposal first.

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But earlier this month, the board voted 7-2 along party lines to table the ordinance until Sept. 10.

In January, the state Legislature approved a law that allows counties and municipalities to create veterans set-aside programs. The law lays out the framework that the Republican freeholders seem to think the proposal lacks: Qualified businesses must be at least 51 percent owned by a veteran, or veterans must perform at least 25 percent of the work on the county contract.

And Bell's and Garrett's proposed ordinance does not set any hard quota - which could create problems. It simply would set a goal of awarding 5 percent of county contracts to such companies.

The problems - financial, psychological, physical - facing veterans today, particularly the vets returning from America's long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, need no recounting here. They are all too obvious. And the debt America owes these men and women needs no - should need no - recounting. It, too, is obvious.

So what could be the possible problem with setting a mere goal of awarding 5 percent of county contracts to businesses owned by veterans or employing significant numbers of them?

If a savvy vet creates a company or if an existing business owner purposely changes his or her hiring practices simply to qualify for the program - well, good. The goal will be accomplished - more jobs for vets.

Is this unfair to other businesses competing for county contracts? A hard quota could be - but a goal isn't. Not in this case.

The Republican freeholders should drop whatever political games they are playing and join Bell and Garrett in approving this measure by a vote of 9-0 on Sept. 10.

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