TRENTON, N.J. – In the past few years, New Jersey has honored its veterans with free beach access, hunting and fishing licenses, and hiring preferences for civil service jobs. A veteran lawmaker thinks it is time to quit what he calls the “soft-shoe” approach.
Assemblyman Brian Bergen, who was an Apache fighter pilot during Operation Iraqi Freedom, spent nine months searching across the country for the best pieces of legislation. He introduced a nine-bill package earlier this month he hopes will poise the state to again lead the way in taking care of its veteran population.
“These bills represent the very best ideas from around the country,” said Bergen (R-Morris). “It is time we make New Jersey the most desirable place for our heroes to come when they are finished serving our country.”
The package includes successful programs launched in Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and West Virginia.
The Garden State is home to approximately 308,000 veterans, according to an analysis by the website 24/7 Wall St. But in the most densely populated state, they only account for 4.4 percent of the population, the second lowest percentage among the 50 states. The Veterans Administration predicts that number to drop sharply over the next three decades as many are moving to the West and South.
Bergen hopes to reverse that trend by attracting recently discharged military personnel with successful initiatives used in Indiana and Iowa.
He has proposed a “Bring Veterans to New Jersey” program (A5426), similar to an initiative launched in the Hoosier State two years ago. It would pay up to $5,000 in relocation expenses to veterans who accept a job offer and move to New Jersey. Another proposal (A5424), from the Hawkeye State, could award an additional $5,000 towards a down payment and closing cost for a new home in New Jersey.
Having started his own business after an eight-year military career, Bergen also authored legislation (A5427) to provide a one-time grant up to $10,000 to buy into an established franchise.
“We want veterans to come to New Jersey. We need them in our workforce and we want them to own businesses,” explained Bergen. “The more we do to incentivize them the better.”
Compensating veterans for the hardship of their service was another important aspect for the freshman lawmaker.
Inspired by a homestead exemption program in Illinois, Bergen proposed (A5429) giving service-disabled veterans a property tax discount that matches their disability rating. If a veteran is 70 percent disabled, they would only be responsible to pay 30 percent of their property tax bill. Currently in New Jersey, only veterans with a 100 percent disability can qualify for a property tax exemption.
Other bills would raise annual payments to seriously disabled veterans from $750 to $3,000, matching the rate in Delaware (A5425), and would create a military family relief fund, like in Arizona, to provide grants up to $2,500 to defray the costs of food, housing, health care, and other essential expenses for members of the U.S. Armed Forces or New Jersey National Guard and their families (A5423).
Bolstering educational opportunities is another important element for Bergen, a West Point graduate.
Based on the Illinois veteran grant program, he introduced legislation (A5422) providing free tuition at state colleges for state residents who serve at least one year of federal active duty. And for military heroes who earned a Medal of Honor or Purple Heart, state colleges would be required to waive the tuition and fees (A5430), mirroring a West Virginia tuition waiver.
For Bergen, instituting something meaningful is personal.
“Veterans gave us and our country their best, and they should get the best we can offer back,” concluded Bergen.
Senate counterparts of the bills were introduced by Sens. Mike Testa (R-Cape May) and Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) on Tuesday.