If signed by Malloy, bill would make Connecticut first state to open up benefits to bad paper vets

Connecticut would be the first state to open up access to veterans' benefits to former service members discharged under less than honorable conditions, if Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signs a bill that's headed to his desk.

Both the state House and Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 284, which would expand access to state veteran benefits to former service members diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury or who experienced sexual trauma during their service, as long as they received a discharge other than bad conduct or dishonorable. The 2018 legislative session ended Wednesday at midnight.

Asked whether the governor intends to sign the bill, spokesman David Bednarz said by email "the Governor and his staff will review the final language that was included in the adopted bill when it is transmitted to his office."

There are five types of military discharges. An "other than honorable discharge" is the most severe form of administrative discharge, usually given after a pattern of misconduct. This kind of discharge, commonly referred to as a bad paper discharge, usually makes a veteran ineligible for state and federal veterans' benefits. In Connecticut, that means being denied local property tax exemptions and tuition waivers for universities and community and technical colleges in the state, for example.

About 800 people would be impacted by the legislation, according to the fiscal note attached to the bill. But it's not known how many of them would actually take advantage of the benefits. The legislation would result in "costs to multiple agencies and revenue loss to the General Fund, Special Transportation Fund, and municipalities," the fiscal note says.

Supporters of the bill argued that the misconduct, for which these vets received an other than honorable discharge, was triggered by service-related PTSD and other mental health issues.

Steve Kennedy, one of the main proponents of the bill, said in the past year he's seen a "huge" change in people's perception of veterans with other than honorable discharges.

"A lot of it was really just sharing with people that it's not black and white. There's a range of discharge characterizations, and different processes to getting each one," he said.

The effort to provide access to state benefits to "bad paper" vets started last year. But the proposal never made it out of the General Assembly's Veterans' Affairs Committee, because officials were concerned that it would have put the state in a position of making a connection between a vet's diagnosis of PTSD or TBI and his or her bad paper discharge.

To be eligible for state benefits, a veteran with an other than honorable discharge will have to show they have one of the qualifying conditions. The state Department of Veterans Affairs will have a form on its website that vets can take to a VA hospital or vet center, and certify that he or she has a qualifying condition.

Ideally, the Department of Defense will reform its discharge guidelines, Kennedy said, and there is an effort at the national level to get the department to do that, but Connecticut's passage of the bill "sets an example that this is something that can be addressed in the states."

"There's no reason why we need to wait for the federal government to do this," Kennedy said. "These are our friends and neighbors that we're taking care of here."

j.bergman@theday.com

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