Legislators seek to ease civilian travails for state's soldiers - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Legislators seek to ease civilian travails for state's soldiers

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Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008 11:20 pm | Updated: 9:42 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

As a U.S. Army Reserve intelligence officer deployed to Iraq, Jonathan Paton faced bombs, snipers and rocket attacks. While dealing with the dangers and worries that come with serving in a war zone, he also faced a vexing problem back home: His health club continued to charge him $29 a month for a membership he couldn't use.

Paton was unable to resolve the issue during his seven-month deployment even after calling the club from Iraq.

"It's just one more thing to worry about back home," Paton said.

Paton, a Republican representative from Tucson, is among state lawmakers pressing this legislative session for laws to help regular military, National Guard members, reservists and veterans.

There are more than a dozen bills, dealing with subjects including cell phone contracts, tuition benefits and the right of way for funeral processions.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington, D.C., said bills to help with finances are showing up elsewhere as states respond to incidents of service members returning home to face large debts and action by collection agencies.

"I'd like to say it doesn't happen a lot, but it happens enough to call attention to it, that there is a problem out there that needs to be fixed," Davis said.

Paton said the legislation reflects laws catching up with the times and also responds to the large role the National Guard and reservists are playing in Iraq and Afghanistan, forcing people to leave civilian life.

"In Vietnam and other conflicts, you didn't have things like gym memberships. It wasn't something you thought of," he said.

Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, introduced HB2519, which would require health spas and clubs to allow suspension or cancellation of membership for the duration of a service member's deployment. The bill, which Paton also is sponsoring, is moving toward a vote by the full House.

Ableser said he wrote the bill after a former House page serving in Iraq with the U.S. Air Force accrued two years of health spa fees while away.

"To me, that's completely unfair and completely disheartening to hear an industry would go after our armed (forces) men and women serving our country," Ableser said.

Sen. Jim Waring, R-Phoenix, introduced SB1034, allowing deployed service members to suspend or terminate cell phone contracts during their tours. Waring said the bill would keep mounting cell phone bills from distracting troops from their missions.

Mike Krouse, executive director of the National Guard Association of Arizona, said the bills are in the spirit of federal laws allowing deployed military members to break leases.

"It's not that soldier's fault. He's got to leave when he gets called up," Krouse said.

Waring introduced SB1006, which would prevent the expiration of more than 30 types of professional licenses held by deployed service members. The bill gives those licensees six months to renew after returning from their deployments.

"Some of these licenses, if you get cut off, you've got to start all over again, and we don't want that," Waring said.

Other bills seek to help soldiers and veterans afford tuition at community colleges and public universities.

SB1035, also introduced by Waring, would grant tuition waivers to community colleges and public universities for any veteran who has served in the armed forces, National Guard or military reserve.

Waring said he isn't sure whether that bill will move forward because of the state's budget deficit. It hasn't been heard in committee.

"I wouldn't say it's not a priority by any of the other members," Waring said.

Andrew Carlson, legislative assistant for the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, said his department is pressing for SB1147, sponsored by Sen. Tom O'Halleran, R-Sedona. It would enable members of the National Guard earning Purple Heart tuition waivers to transfer the waiver to a spouse.

State law currently offers the waiver only to the Purple Heart recipient. Those seeking the change say recipients sometimes are too injured to attend or have already finished college.

A strikethrough amendment to HB2210, sponsored by Jennifer Burns, R-Avra Valley, created an almost identical bill in the House.

Other bills that would benefit current and former military members include free Arizona Game and Fish licenses for disabled veterans and granting the right of way to military processions used for funerals, to honor soldiers or to transport military monuments.

Paton said that the range of bills to help military members and veterans reflects the state's appreciation for their sacrifices.

"We're in a war, and I think people want to do what they can to support our troops," Paton said.

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