COLUMBUS - The Ohio Senate unanimously decided yesterday to ask voters to revive the state's nearly century-old tradition of paying cash bonuses to veterans returning from war.
But the measure faces an uncertain future in the House, where Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) objects to borrowing as much as $200 million for the one-time expenditure.
"I will leave it to veterans and the [families] of servicemen to help me make the case that we should give citizens the decision-making voice on whether we should use borrowed money to say thanks to those who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Desert Storm," said Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland), the measure's sponsor.
The resolution would put a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot to authorize borrowing of up to $200 million to provide bonuses to those who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the current ongoing wars on two fronts.
The package would provide a bonus of $100 for each month of service, up to a maximum of $1,000, for each Ohioan deployed, or $50 per month, up to a maximum of $500, for those who served elsewhere during these conflicts.
The measure, originally proposed by State Treasurer Richard Cordray and supported by Gov. Ted Strickland, would also provide $5,000 to the surviving families of those killed or listed as missing in action.
To qualify, the returning veteran must be an Ohio resident, had been a resident for at least a year before deployment, and had not been dishonorably discharged from the military.
The projected price tag of the bonuses is currently figured to be about $105 million, but the fact that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue prompted senators to ask voters to authorize up to $200 million.
By comparison, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved past borrowing of up to $300 million for Vietnam War veterans, $90 million for the Korean War, $300 million for World War II, and $25 million for World War I.
Mr. Husted said he doesn't oppose the bonuses, but argued that Ohio shouldn't go further in debt to pay for what amounts to a one-time expenditure.
"The whole argument that was made in doing the tobacco settlement [bond issue] was that we were going to pay down our debt so that we had the money in the future to fund school construction and a property tax cut for senior citizens," he said. "We put debt caps in and said we weren't going to exceed those debt caps, and yet this would be an unplanned expenditure."
He argued that lawmakers should consider paying for the bonuses out of existing revenue. He made the comment at a time when the state must deal with a projected budget shortfall ranging from $733 million to $1.9 billion by June 30, 2009.
"Issuing bonds to pay for the veterans' service bonus especially makes sense right now because interest rates are dropping," Mr. Cordray said. "Using bonds lowers both the overall cost and the up-front cost of these benefits, and no debt service payment would have to be made until the next biennial budget."
Mr. Husted noted that past bonuses were for the most part awarded to people who had been drafted as opposed to today's all-volunteer military.
"When you're out there, a bullet doesn't care whether you're a draftee or a volunteer," said Mr. Grendell. "When you're sitting in 115-degree temperatures away from your family and you can't earn income as a civilian, you are entitled to a bonus regardless of what got you there."
The vote follows enactment of a bill that, beginning this year, exempts military pensions from Ohio's income tax.
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