Monday, October 02, 2006

Pa. voters asked to OK borrowing to help Gulf War vets NewsFlash - Pa. voters asked to OK borrowing to help Gulf War vets HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Nearly 33,000 Pennsylvania veterans who participated in the Persian Gulf War may qualify for state combat 'bonuses' of as much as $525 each if voters approve a $20 million bond issue that is on the Nov. 7 statewide ballot.

The payments, authorized by a law that lawmakers overwhelmingly approved and Gov. Ed Rendell signed with little fanfare in April, would be similar to previously authorized bonuses for veterans who served in or during wars dating back to the Spanish-American War in the late-1800s.

'Pennsylvania has had a history of providing a war/conflict bonus to resident veterans,' said Rep. Jerry L. Nailor, R-Cumberland, a sponsor of the bill.

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"I think it's important to reward all veterans equally," said another sponsor, Rep. Neal P. Goodman, D-Schuylkill.

While it has been overshadowed by this year's high-profile races for Congress, the governorship and the Legislature, the initiative remains a priority for major veterans' groups.

Richard Coccimiglio, an alternate member of the American Legion's national executive committee, said this is the first time in modern history that Pennsylvania has not provided bonuses for veterans connected to a war.

In 1992, by a margin of nearly 2-1, Pennsylvania voters rejected a $25 million bond issue that would have compensated Gulf War veterans and provided money to build a veterans' memorial.

"It's a shame that we're becoming so complacent," said Coccimiglio, a Navy veteran who lives in Penfield.

Twenty-seven Pennsylvanians died in the Gulf War, which lasted from August 1990 to August 1991. In all, just under 33,000 state residents were involved — 21,700 on active military duty, 9,600 reservists and 1,500 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard, Nailor said.

Under the bill, those veterans would be entitled to $75 for every month they served, up to a maximum $525. Payments of $5,000 would be available to survivors of Pennsylvanians who died and to any veteran who was a prisoner of war. Nailor said he knew of only one former POW.

The only legislator who voted against the bill said he did so because he objects to borrowing money — and incurring hefty interest — for services that he believes should be financed through annual appropriations.

"Let's do it, but let's do it as a matter of fiscal priority in the state budget," said Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny.

The State Budget Office estimates that principal and interest on the borrowing would cost taxpayers $30 million over 20 years. Ferlo dismissed the figure as unrealistically low and said lawmakers shoved the bill through to score patriotic points with constituents angry over the pay raises that legislators approved for themselves and later repealed in 2005.

"They wanted to come back and buy the world an ice-cream cone," he said.

Coccimiglio speculates that voters' reluctance to authorize new borrowing doomed the 1992 bond issue. He fears that the new plan might be rejected for the same reason, even though he thinks the payments could be completed within five years and without using the full $20 million.

Nailor said this year's budget surplus was insufficient to cover the Gulf War bonuses and that the proposed borrowing would provide money dedicated exclusively to the program.

"I think we probably have waited as long as we should have," he said.