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Bill O Boyle: Shapiro underscores importance of additional resources for veteran care

Times Leader - 6/17/2024

Jun. 15--WILKES-BARRE -- As the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs celebrates State Veterans Homes Week across Pennsylvania, Gov. Josh Shapiro and Major General Mark Schindler, Pennsylvania's adjutant general and head of the DMVA, visited residents and staff at the Southeastern Veterans' Center (SEVC) to highlight the important work being done in caring and servicing Pennsylvania's more than 700,000 veterans.

Gov. Shapiro and MG Schindler met with SEVC residents, including two World War II veterans -- Paul Lynch and Paul Trumbetas. They are two of more than 30 World War II residents in DMVA's state veterans' homes across the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest veterans' population in the country. The Shapiro Administration has been working to serve Pennsylvania veterans across the Commonwealth -- from making improvements to veterans' homes to investing in county mental health services and workforce training programs for veterans and military families.

"Our veterans have served our Commonwealth and our country and fought for our freedoms -- and our state veterans homes provide the world-class care so they can age with dignity," Shapiro said. "I was proud to break ground on a new veterans' home in Hollidaysburg last year, and with the investments proposed in my budget, we're going to continue to fulfill our obligation to provide our veterans with the benefits and care they earned through their service. My Administration will always work to ensure that the brave men and women who protected our freedoms can prosper here in the Commonwealth."

"We are here to provide service members, veterans and their families assistance in accessing the support and benefits they've earned through their service," says Maj. Gen. Schindler. "This vital funding ensures we reach service members and veterans in outlying communities without access to city centers and reliable internet."

Outreach and education is at the forefront of DMVA's dual mission for Pennsylvania. During the calendar years 2020 to 2022, the demand for claims work to support veterans has increased by over 13%.

The Governor's proposed budget invests $2 million for DMVA's proposed walk-in outreach center to aid service members, veterans and their families. The center will create a one-stop shop outside of the secure perimeter of Fort Indiantown Gap to complement existing county veteran offices and to make it easier for Pennsylvanians who have served our nation to receive the benefits and help they have earned. The first outreach center will be in Lickdale, Pa with a projected opening in Fall 2024.

The Governor's budget also includes $500,000 to expand and improve the Department of State's Military Occupational Crosswalk, which aims to connect veterans with civilian career opportunities equivalent to their military experience.

With this funding, DOS will create a user-friendly web portal that will serve as a repository for information on hundreds of occupations and decrease barriers to professional practice for returning military veterans and their spouses. Already, the crosswalk has provided support to over 1,500 veterans, service members and military spouses.

Rep. Meuser supports defense bill that puts service members and families first

U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Dallas, this week voted in favor of the FY25 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allocates $883.7 billion to the Department of Defense and our military.

Meuser said the bill strategically refocuses the Pentagon on its core mission: delivering combat-ready military forces to deter war and ensure national security. It eliminates funding for woke social agendas and initiatives that do not align with the Department's primary purpose.

Meuser said key highlights that will benefit the Commonwealth include a 19.5% pay raise for junior enlisted members, a 4.5% pay raise for Pennsylvania's 28,900 service members, and $129 million for three military construction projects in Pennsylvania.

It also expands employment programs for Pennsylvania's 1,500 military spouses and childcare access for 2,800 military children.

Furthermore, Meuser said the FY25 NDAA allocates $337.4 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, ensuring full funding for veterans' medical care, benefits and addressing toxic exposure-related needs.

Meuser said the challenges of military recruitment and retention have grown more pronounced in recent years, raising significant concerns for national security. He said the provisions within the NDAA play a pivotal role in strengthening the military's ability to recruit and retain personnel. Meuser said this ensures that U.S. armed forces are adequately equipped and staffed to meet the nation's defense needs both now and in the future.

"Our service members and their families must come first," Meuser said. "With growing threats from our adversaries overseas, our country needs to invest in military readiness and support those who serve. This legislation guarantees a significant pay raise for our dedicated service members and prioritizes the needs of their families. Supporting this bipartisan legislation will enhance our national security and better the lives of the brave men and woman that defend our country."

The FY25 National Defense Authorization Act passed the House by a vote of 217-199 and was referred to the Senate for further consideration.

PEDA program will help local governments finance energy system upgrades, lower bills

The Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority (PEDA) this week launched a new financing program designed to help local governments identify and develop energy efficiency and energy system upgrades for municipally-owned buildings.

The Municipal Opportunities for Retrofits and Energy Efficiency (MORE) Program offers both grants and loans to eligible Pennsylvania municipalities and municipal authorities, and applications opened on June 3.

"Reducing energy use both cuts local governments' utility bills and helps fight climate change, making this program a win-win," said Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary Jessica Shirley, who serves as the chair of PEDA's board of directors. "The MORE Program can result in reduced energy bills for communities, and I encourage municipal governments to take advantage of this special grant and loan to finance their energy-focused projects."

"PEDA is excited to add new tools to help Pennsylvanians reduce energy costs and improve energy performance," said PEDA Acting Executive Director Geoff Bristow. "The MORE program is a creative use of public funds that we hope will serve as a catalyst for local governments seeking to upgrade building energy performance."

PEDA is operating the program on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The MORE Program was built by blending Energy Efficiency & Conservation Block Grant funds with the Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan Fund. Both were formula funds from the Department of Energy under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Approximately $1.8 million in grant funds will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis beginning on June 3, 2024. Eligible applicants can apply for a MORE Grant of up to $50,000 through Oct. 25, 2024.

Grant funds may be used by local governments to identify and design energy efficiency projects, and to buy down the interest rate of a MORE Loan. MORE Program participants are strongly encouraged to apply for the MORE Grant first, as it is intended to reduce the hurdles of securing financing for energy efficiency projects.

Sen. Baker legislation would equip wildlife law enforcement officers with body cameras

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, recently introduced legislation to authorize deputy law enforcement officers with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission to wear body cameras.

Ten years ago, the passage of Act 202 authorized trained officers of both agencies to wear body cameras, including waterways conservation officers of the Fish and Boat Commission and wildlife conservation officers -- now state game wardens -- of the Game Commission.

However, deputies of the agencies were intentionally excluded from the authorization -- a prohibition that remains in effect. Baker's Senate Bill 1194 would extend the benefits of body-worn cameras to the excluded deputies.

"Body cameras are a crucial tool for modern law enforcement," Baker said. "They provide an accurate and unbiased account of officer engagements, ensuring the protection and integrity of both citizens and officers. Officers from these agencies often work independently in remote areas with poor radio and cellphone coverage and frequently encounter armed individuals. Additionally, their role has evolved to include confronting serious drug activity and other criminal cases beyond sporting safety and wildlife protection. Our officers deserve enhanced safety and accountability while working under challenging conditions."

The proposed legislation would not impose a mandate, but leaves the final decision to each agency. Funding for the body cameras would come from the Fish Fund and the Game Fund.

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.

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