The New York State Senate passed several bills to provide greater benefits and protections to New York's military personnel. The legislation includes measures to provide better access to health and mental health services, employment opportunities, support for the families of New York's service members, and ways to commemorate and honor those who serve our state and nation. "Our veterans and their families have made so many sacrifices for us all," said Senator Vincent L. Leibell (R-C-I, Patterson), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs. "When they return, it is our responsibility to provide them with the necessary tools to secure a solid foundation for their future." "New York State is home to about 1.2 million veterans. This package of legislation is for the men and women serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa and in over 130 foreign lands around the world and for those who have already served," Senator Bill Larkin (R-C, Cornwall-on-Hudson) said. "These measures will give those individuals who are willing to put their lives on the line for the good of this country the support they should have from a state that is grateful for all they have sacrificed." "My son, David, is now serving in Japan and will soon be leaving his family for a three-month tour at sea," said Senator Betty Little (R,C,I-Queensbury). "His service reminds me every day of the sacrifices being made by hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women protecting our nation and keeping us safe. I am pleased to support these bills and to continue advocating for our veterans." The legislation passed includes bills that would: > allow members of the armed forces to take special military make up civil service exams (S.7792, Senator Leibell); > authorize State and Municipal employees to be paid for up to 45 days of military deployment each year, up from 30 days (S.7830A, Senator Leibell); > amend the domestic relations law to state that a parent's military status shall not affect his or her parental rights during custody proceedings (S.5863, Senator DeFrancisco); "Unfortunately mothers and fathers who serve in our armed forces are discovering that their military status can negatively affect them during contentious child custody proceedings," said Senator John A. DeFrancisco (R-C-I-WF, Syracuse). "It is essential for us to protect our military members and we cannot continue to allow their military status to adversely affect their parental rights. My bill would ensure that a parent's decision to serve his or her country would not come into question during family court custody proceedings." > add two members to the mental health services council -- one from the Division of Veterans Affairs and one from the Division of Military and Naval Affairs (S.7183A, Senator Morahan); "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created an immediate need to address the mental health concerns of current and future veterans. It is critical our military leaders have the capacity to accurately project the effects the costs of treating our veterans will have on government services," said Senator Morahan, Chairman of the Senate's Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee. "This legislation will add two highly qualified new members to the Mental Health Services Council who are in the best position to help assess and deal with the mental health needs of veterans, including those returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan." > unify New York's dates for authorized action in Lebanon to match the federal government's start date for purposes of pension credit (S.7956, Senator Flanagan); > establish the Veterans Memorial Preservation Act (S.7879-A, Senator Leibell); and > extend the statue of limitations for actions involving exposure to Agent Orange for two years (S.7832, Senator Leibell). The legislation passed today builds on the Senate's ongoing efforts to provide assistance and benefits to New York's veterans and active military members, including the innovative Patriot Plan which provided numerous benefits to our service men and women fighting the War on Terror. The bills were sent to the Assembly. The Senate also gave final legislative approval to a bill that would: > permit the New York State Department of Civil Service to increase the number of entry-level competitive class positions from 300 to 500 that it can reclassify to noncompetitive class positions to promote the appointment of veterans with disabilities (S.7791, Senator Leibell). In addition, the Senate has also passed legislation that would: > prohibit courts from making determinations in child custody proceedings when a parent is activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service (S.5860, Senator Rath); "In some cases, decisions regarding child custody are made while a service member is activated and serving our country," said Senator Mary Lou Rath (R-C-I, Williamsville). "This is unfair. Major decisions about a family's future should not be made when someone cannot speak for themselves. This bill would remedy this situation by ensuring that custody decisions are not made until the service member returns from service." > Authorize the use of State funds for the operation and maintenance of state veterans' cemeteries (S.8010, Senator Leibell); > exempt military personnel serving in a combat zone from income tax on compensation for their service (S.3574-A, Senator Lanza); > provide a United States burial flag for veterans of the New York Guard (S.7515, Senator Saland); and > allow the Defense Department 214 as proof of service for Cold War veterans applying for a real property tax exemption (S.6697, Senator Maziarz). Veterans' Programs in the State Budget This year's state budget included $4.5 million to provide tuition assistance for veterans enrolled in an approved graduate, undergraduate and vocational program. Veterans' tuition assistance was increased from $2,000 per year to $4,350, allowing veterans to attend a SUNY or CUNY school tuition-free. If a veteran chooses to attend a private school, they will receive the equivalent towards their education costs. Veterans enrolled in part-time studies will receive a pro-rated amount. In addition, the enacted budget expanded the eligibility for this program to cover all veterans who served in the Armed Forces in any hostilities since 1961. The program is a Senate Majority initiative that originally passed unanimously in the Senate last year (S.6288, Senator Bruno). "Our service men and women make a tremendous sacrifice when they make the decision to put their lives on the line and defend the freedoms we enjoy as Americans," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno. "This benefit will allow our veterans the opportunity to further their education by providing free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools. It's important we show our veterans our respect and gratitude, and provide them with benefits to allow them to sustain and improve their quality of life." The 2008-09 state budget includes $250,000 to train mental health providers in veteran-specific mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and substance abuse issues. (S.6799-A, Senator Fuschillo, Passed Senate 5/12/08) "With a large number of returning veterans suffering from major depression, PTSD or TBI, it is vital that mental health professionals are able to properly identify and treat these illnesses that are unique to combat situations," Senator Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr. (R-Merrick) said. "This program will prepare New York's mental health workforce to meet the needs of combat veterans and ensure the men and women who risked their lives overseas will be able to go on with their lives when they return home." The budget also included $150,000 for the Canines for Veterans Program, to provide working support dogs to combat veterans who are injured in the line of duty, a program initiated by the Senate Majority.