Disabled vets come up short in legislative ‘sausage-making process’

A state House push to reverse last year’s cuts in aid to disabled military veterans died on the final day of the legislative session last week in the face of Senate opposition, leading to approval of a more modest improvement in the program and multiple promises to seek full restoration of the cuts next year.

“In the sausage-making process we’re engaged in here, something is better than nothing,” said Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, in urging colleagues to vote for the final version of the bill on Friday.

They ultimately did after some convoluted proceedings. The final vote was 58-18, though at one point House members actually voted in favor of continuing the fight, even though that could have meant prolonging the 2016 session.

The House on Thursday had voted 81-3 to fully restore the 2015 reductions, a move requiring $7 million in state funding that was not included in the $34.9 billion state budget approved a week earlier.

The new state budget includes just $976,000 in new funding for the program, which provides state subsidies for the local property taxes paid by the disabled and low-income senior citizens.

The program currently provides for the state to reimburse property tax payments for 100 percent disabled military veterans on the first $100,000 value of their home, if the veteran’s household income does not exceed $60,000 per year. Before the 2015 reduction, the first $175,000 in value was covered and there was no income limitation. Ragan said about 16,000 Tennesseans qualify as 100 percent disabled veterans.

For seniors and disabled people who are not military veterans, the reimbursement currently covers the first $23,000 in property value. It was $25,000 before the 2015 cut, which was supported by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration with backing of the state comptroller’s office. They contended the program was growing too costly and restrictions needed to be imposed as a matter of fiscal responsibility.

Last week’s activity centered around SB1796, one of seven bills filed this year to bolster the program in one way or the other. The bill was sponsored by Ragan in the House and Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, in the Senate.

The House move to fully restore the program was somewhat unusual in that it was initially proposed by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, with most Republicans — including Ragan, observing that the money was roughly 1 percent of the present $600 million state budget surplus — joining after impassioned speeches in support of veterans disabled in the service of their country.

The Fitzhugh plan called for using the $976,000 available in the budget to cover costs of the program in the first months of the state’s fiscal year, which begins on July 1, with a declared commitment for the Legislature to promptly add the remaining money necessary when the 2017 session begins in January.

But senators rejected the idea. Overbey said the action would leave the state budget “$7 million in the hole” and legislators should stick with the plan as provided in the budget already adopted.

“Legally, this is a much more responsible approach,” Overbey said.

The standoff led to appointment of a House-Senate conference committee that met on Friday morning and basically voted to abandon the House proposal — with Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, dissenting. She filed a “minority report” that backed the House plan, arguing that there was no attempt at compromise and rejection of the “majority report” would lead to more discussion.

Under House rules, Camper’s proposal came up for debate first. House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada promptly moved to table, or kill, the proposal.

Casada’s motion was soundly rejected on the first vote with only 34 representatives backing him while 44 voted no and the rest refused to vote one way or another. Casada then called a 30-minute recess to allow for a meeting of the House Republican Caucus. When members emerged from that session, he moved again to kill Camper’s minority report. On second try, the motion prevailed 51-27 — again, with several Republicans refusing to vote one way or the other.

The final version — basically the Senate version authorized in Haslam’s budget — was then approved on the 58-18 vote. The final Senate vote was 28-1.

Under the final version, the $976,000 will go toward repealing the $60,000 income limit for disabled veterans for those veterans applying for the program for the first time. That will help, for example, some veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iran, Ragan said, as well as Vietnam veterans recently found to be suffering the effects of “Agent Orange.”

The final version also increases from $23,000 to $23,500 the property value covered by subsidies to other disabled people and senior citizens.

Several legislators made speeches endorsing Ragan’s declaration that “something is better than nothing,” including Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville.

“I could not go home empty-handed to our veterans,” he said.

Smith and others — including Overbey in the Senate — vowed they would work diligently to see that last year’s cuts are fully eliminated next year.