Legislators of different parties team up to help vets

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A Warwick Democrat and a Cranston Republican are teaming up to put veterans affairs in a legislative spotlight.

Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson and Representative Robert Lancia, both proudly touting their Navy service, shared many of their ideas on legislation last Tuesday at Vella-Wilkinson’s new office on West Shore Road in Warwick. The two hope to create a $1 million fund for veterans to borrow from to help start businesses, create a resource guide that would help veterans know how to access services, eliminate taxes on veterans pensions, reach out to student veterans, and more this upcoming year.

In terms of funding their efforts, they hope that some, especially the $1 million fund, can be budgeted items but otherwise will look into grants, corporate sponsors (for the resource guide), and partner with other organizations and state agencies that will help with initiatives. Vella-Wilkinson and Lancia say their proposals are important as many of them are either things they’ve personally experienced as veterans, that they’ve heard from their constituents, or that they’ve discussed with Director of Veteran’s Affairs Kasim Yarn. Lancia said he was also prompted by action he saw being taken in the Senate.

“I made a pledge that if I got [to the State House], I would be the person on the House side that would promote this as well,” he said. “We have a lot of returning veterans that are looking for opportunities in my own district, and a lot of young people especially.”

The $1 million fund would provide startup capital loans of $10,000-$20,000 (Lancia said that amount is according to the Small Business Administration) for veterans to start their own businesses. This would be in collaboration with the Women’s Business Enterprise, the Small Business Administration, and the commerce corporation to ensure that a portion of funding can go to Veterans Business Enterprises as well, they said.

“It not only encourages the veterans to own business, but also puts the onus on government to have a certain percentage of their contracts that would go to, in this case, Veterans Business Enterprises,” Vella-Wilkinson said.

Vella-Wilkinson said there will be an approval process before anyone can get the loan – it must be determined whether the person and their proposed business will be “bankable.” Those proposing businesses can also be mentored and provided resources through the collaborating enterprises. If it’s determined that a business or person is not bankable, the person can instead be provided training on credit restoration and personal finances.

Another issue, Lancia and Vella-Wilkinson said, is that Rhode Island’s veteran population is declining because of taxes on their pensions – Lancia agreed, noting that the state could stand to lose a congressional seat if the population continued to decrease. Eliminating that tax would be a great way to keep veterans in the state, he said.

Another long-term goal on Vella-Wilkinson’s mind is redefining, or at least clarifying, what the term “veteran” actually means in Rhode Island. She said that while she was on the City Council, she had met people who served in uniform but felt that they weren’t veterans because they were not able to access veterans benefits since they didn’t serve during an active conflict delineated by the state.

Lancia and Vella-Wilkinson said these are not the only issues they are looking to tackle; they also understand that the opioid crisis, property tax exemptions on vehicles and transportation for disabled veterans, mental illnesses like post traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma and suicides are prevalent in the veteran population.

That Lancia and Vella-Wilkinson are from separate sides of the political aisle is important to them; they heavily praised each other’s work, saying more collaboration could be expected from the two of them and that they hoped more bipartisan teams on legislation would be forthcoming.

“When people come to me in the House, I don’t look to see if they’re a Republican, an Independent or a Democrat,” Vella-Wilkinson said. “I read legislation, look at it on its merit, and move forward.”

The two, who are “thrilled” to be working on the Veteran’s Committee together, said they would continue to speak with constituents and with each other on their next steps.

“We’re always out listening. The only way is to be out and active,” said Lancia of hearing from veterans about their needs.

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