April 16. 2012 9:23AM

2012 is Year of the Veteran

By Mary Lazich

Wisconsin has many soldiers bravely serving our country all over the world. When they return, it is time for us to serve them.

The Legislature values and appreciates the sacrifices made by our veterans. We want each to have access to healthcare, housing, education and employment. That is why we gave special attention to several veterans' issues during the 2011-2012 legislative session, including shoring up the Veterans Trust Fund, helping vets get professional licenses, and promoting employment for our brave service men and women.

Early in the session, audits revealed problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) and the Veterans Trust Fund, the primary source of funding for veteran's services and benefits for Wisconsin's 417,000 veterans. The trust fund was on the verge of insolvency, and the DVA appeared to have been mismanaged.

In response, DVA leadership was restructured, beginning with the Secretary. Further, the 2011-13 state budget ensured solvency of the Veterans Trust Fund through the biennium by providing $5 million in funding and allowing the DVA greater flexibility. It also set oversight and accountability standards to ensure continued service to veterans.

Fixing administrative problems only goes so far, so the Legislature and Governor Walker approved other bills aimed directly at assisting veterans.

One such bill, Act 209, requires the DVA to establish a program granting fee waivers to qualified veterans applying for professional or occupational licenses. Additionally, Act 210 provides relief for service members worried about renewing their professional or occupational licenses while deployed. Under the bill, all expiration dates of licenses held by active service members are extended to at least 180 days after they are discharged from active duty.

Further, Act 212 provides tax credits to employers hiring unemployed disabled veterans, with an emphasis on full-time and long-term employment. This is designed to provide additional incentives for employers to seek and hire deserving veterans. Veterans unfortunately have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans.

The state is also pursuing non-legislative ways to help vets. Recently, Governor Walker declared 2012 to be the Year of the Veteran. In accordance, the state is providing a series of career and benefit fairs specifically aimed at aiding and employing veterans. Upcoming fairs include Tuesday, May 22, 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Kenosha County Center, Bristol; and Friday, June 8, 1 to 4 p.m. at Edgewood College, Madison.

More details, including additional career and benefit fair dates may be found at www.yearoftheveteran.com.

The sacrifices by our military service personnel are incalculable. We can never give back enough to make up for veterans' service to us. Unfortunately, veterans were affected particularly hard by the economic downturn, and we must all continue working to reverse that trend. Helping a vet get a job, access benefits, or find job training is the least we can do.

State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents Wisconsin's 28th District.