Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they hope bills coming out of the 2020 General Assembly session will improve the lives of active duty military and veterans, especially for Colorado Springs where one in four veterans in the state live.
The bills include increasing the pay for National Guard troops called out for state emergencies, allowing spouses and children of active duty military to receive in-state tuition, and promoting better services for ailing veterans.
Senate Bill 91, which would improve the pay for the lowest-paid National Guard troops, has already won unanimous support from the state Senate and will be reviewed by the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Tuesday. Rep. Tony Exum, Sr., is one of two sponsors of the bill in the House, along with Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron.
Currently, a member of the National Guard called out by the governor for an emergency — most recently, the 2018 Spring Creek fire — gets paid $20 per day. The work can often result in 14- or 15-hour shifts. It equates to about $1.67 per hour for a 12-hour day.
Additionally, the current system for calculating pay is cumbersome and sometimes affected by human error, said Master Sgt. Jessica MacDonald, who serves on the joint staff of the National Guard. “Putting down the plow and picking up the rifle isn’t such a hard decision when the compensation is comparative," she told the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in January.
SB 91 would bump up the pay to an E-4 level with six years experience, or about $88.80 per day.
Sen. Dennis Hisey, R-Fountain, is the Senate sponsor of House Bill 1275, which would allow spouses and children of active duty military to receive in-state tuition at any Colorado community college. The bill passed the House Education Committee on a unanimous vote on Feb. 18 and is expected to win easy passage in the House.
Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Pueblo, told the education committee that while her husband was in the Army, it was hard for her to pursue an education and she often scrambled to accumulate enough college credits while stationed at a base.
Under current law, a new Colorado resident has to wait a year to be eligible for in-state tuition. Colonel Paul DeCecco, a retired 29-year Army veteran, and director of military and veterans programs at Pikes Peak Community College, said that in 2019, 196 military-affiliated students had residency issues. Of them, 13 chose to attend at out-of-state tuition rates, and seven wound up in collections when they couldn't afford it. He estimated at least another 60 would have attended if in-state tuition had been available.
The bill is awaiting its second reading debate in the full House.
Democratic Rep. Marc Snyder and Republican Rep. Terri Carver, both of Colorado Springs, will present House Bill 1220 to the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The bill will be carried by Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, should it reach the Senate.
HB 1220 addresses an issue that came to light at a 2019 town hall held by Snyder and Lee. Nicole de Naray told the lawmakers she didn't understand why she had to drive to Florence -- 50 miles each way -- to see her husband, who was in declining health and in a veterans living center, when Colorado Springs had such a large military presence. There are no veterans living centers in Colorado Springs, Snyder said.
Snyder told Colorado Politics the Department of Human Services does an assessment of veterans living centers every five years, but it's been more Denver-centric and doesn't take into account communities with large military populations, such as El Paso County. HB 1220 requires that assessment, which is due to be conducted this year, to be statewide, with a special requirement to examine veterans' needs in El Paso County.
The bill would require Human Services to look at younger veterans as needs grow for those who served in Vietnam and later conflicts, Snyder said. The assessment would look at changing demographics, post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral health issues, and alternative models of care.
Snyder said alternatives to past styles of care could focus veterans living centers on being more community integrated, with smaller facilities, perhaps 20 that could house five people each, rather than a 100-bed center, for example.