By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Legislature’s House Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security Committee, on Wednesday, heard a list of proposals that, if considered for legislation, may help take better care of the state’s veterans and get them to return back home to West Virginia.
Cabinet Secretary Ted Diaz of the state Department of Veterans Assistance told committee members during the meeting that he was tasked with three priorities upon his appointment in 2021: to take care of the state’s veterans, to continue work on the Beckley nursing home project and to get veterans to return home.
He said his department has been “tenacious” in meeting those priorities.
“We are not one of the largest state agencies. We sometimes have to scream to be heard, and those of you that do know me, know I am pretty much willing to do that,” Sec. Diaz stated, adding that he believes it’s important that those in the legislature understand what his department does.
He explained that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spent $2.77 billion just last year for monetary aid, healthcare benefits, housing and education in West Virginia.
“You accompany that with the $1.5 billion that our retired military brings into this state – that’s more than $4.25 billion dollars that we bring into this state’s economy.”
Diaz further explained that the state department operates the 150-bed West Virginia Veterans Home in Barboursville, which serves homeless and at-risk veterans, and the 120-bed West Virginia Veterans Nursing Facility in Clarksburg.
The department also manages the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery located in Institute, Kanawha County, and maintains 15 benefits offices throughout the state, Sec. Diaz added.
He noted that his department is “on track” to construct the 125-bed veterans nursing facility, which will be located in Beckley, and that funding to begin a statewide suicide prevention program has been secured.
Unfortunately, he said that no funding has yet been secured for the West Virginia Military Hall of Fame, which was established through House Bill 4406 during the 2022 regular legislative session.
“We have been working with our congressional delegation for funding for construction near the Monument Walk of the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery to house it,” Sec. Diaz said. “We are still fighting for that one.”
Gov. Jim Justice, in June 2022, announced that WWII Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams, USMC, would be the first inductee into the hall of fame. Williams passed away on June 29, 2022, at age 98, according to information provided on the Governor’s website.
Diaz continued, “There are days that we feel we are fighting just to keep our heads above water. These proposals . . . are meant not only to support veterans who call West Virginia home, but to attract veterans back into this state.”
His first legislative proposal was the creation of a West Virginia women veterans program.
“More women serve in today’s military than any other time in our nation’s history,” Diaz began. “They have served, and continue to serve with distinction. However, there is a need to eliminate sexual harrassment, sexual assault and domestic violence across the nation.”
He said the program would provide a “trusting, positive atmosphere” at all offices in the state.
Diaz also proposed extending in-state tuition rates for all veterans and active duty personnel and their dependents, regardless of the state in which they live, and to exempt higher education tuition fees for military veterans who have a service connected disability of 50% or greater as well as their dependents.
Diaz also urged legislators to consider the Welcome Home Program, which would provide a $5,000 incentive to any veteran who relocates to the state for at least three years, and the Service Connected Veterans and Dependents Hiring Act, which would give veterans and their spouses, who have a service connected disability of 50% or greater, to be granted preference for a position following passage of a civil service exam.
He also proposed allowing an expedited process to allow veterans and their spouses who hold an out-of-state professional license to transfer that license to West Virginia at no cost.
Lastly, Sec. Diaz said he was “nervous” to discuss his last proposal – creating a real property tax credit for disabled veterans who have a 100% service connected disability.
“I know it’s a touchy subject,” Diaz stated.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a committee substitute of Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would “exempt veterans who are awarded 90% service-connected disability from paying all or part of the ad valorem real property taxes” on their residence.
The bill would be placed on the 2024 ballot as a constitutional amendment should it make it through the legislative process, but similar legislation has been introduced before without passage. It has been sent to the Senate Finance Committee.
In response to a question posed by Del. Bill Ridenour, R-Jefferson, regarding last year’s discussion surrounding potential service reductions at the Beckley VA Medical Center, the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington and the Louis A Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, Sec. Diaz stated that the VA’s recommendations to the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission are no longer in place.
According to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who spoke at a press conference last summer, a bipartisan senatorial committee refused to confirm any new commissioners to AIR which effectively “killed” the commission as well as any proposed service reductions.
“I would like to be an optimist and say they will never think about it again, but I can’t,” Diaz concluded.