Legislature(2003 - 2004)
04/15/2003 03:12 PM MLV
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HB 228-STATE EMPLOYEES CALLED TO MILITARY DUTY [Contains discussion relating to SB 26, the companion bill in the Senate, and to HJR 18] CHAIR LYNN announced that the final order of business would be HOUSE BILL NO. 228, "An Act relating to state employees who are called to active duty as reserve or auxiliary members of the armed forces of the United States; and providing for an effective date." Number 0334 REPRESENTATIVE BETH KERTTULA, Alaska State Legislature, sponsor of HB 228, thanked Senator Elton for the original legislation on the Senate side [SB 26, also sponsored by Senator Taylor]. She deferred to Tracy Wendt to present the legislation. Number 0284 TRACY WENDT, Intern for Representative Beth Kerttula, Alaska State Legislature, informed members that HB 228 gives the governor the authority to instate pay and benefits for [state employees who are] members of the armed forces who are called to active duty or who are on call. The intent is to provide benefits and any difference between [active-duty pay] and the full salary that the employee would have received from the state. Thus the bill ensures that families aren't left having to deal with financial obligations for their loved ones who are away fighting in a war. She said one concern with the bill was the desire not to intentionally eliminate any group. Therefore, the desire is to have it apply to anyone that the governor chooses [to have it apply to]; however, this is optional and isn't mandated. Number 0151 REPRESENTATIVE KERTTULA brought attention to Amendment A.1, labeled 23-LS0894\A.1, Craver, 4/14/03, which read: Page 1, line 1, following "duty": Insert "or ordered to full-time service" Page 1, lines 9 - 11: Delete "including the organized militia of Alaska, consisting of the Alaska National Guard, the Alaska Naval Militia, and the Alaska State Defense Force," Page 1, line 11, following "duty": Insert "or ordered to full-time service" MS. WENDT explained that there had been concern about omitting some groups such as the U.S. Coast Guard, but the intent isn't to do that. Therefore, Amendment A.1 restates the language broadly enough that the bill applies to any armed forces [branch] or auxiliary of the armed forces. Number 0076 REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG [moved to adopt] Amendment A.1. CHAIR LYNN indicated Amendment A.1 was adopted without objection. MS. WENDT, in response to a question from Chair Lynn, said people would get their state pay or less. She said this is really more for benefits. REPRESENTATIVE MASEK offered her belief that this will have a fiscal impact because of the way it is written. TAPE 03-7, SIDE A Number 0001 REPRESENTATIVE KERTTULA said that is right if the governor chooses to implement this. That's why there is an indeterminate fiscal note. REPRESENTATIVE MASEK said that is why she has a problem with the bill. Saying she appreciates that state employees volunteer, she reiterated concern about a budgetary impact. CHAIR LYNN agreed that it seems there will be a fiscal impact. REPRESENTATIVE KERTTULA explained that people who volunteer, when they go to active duty, may suddenly lose their benefits, as will their families. They definitely, in many cases, lose pay as well. She emphasized that these people are volunteering "for us." She said, "We felt that we should allow the governor the authority to go ahead and do this if he felt like it. The reason it's an indeterminate amount is, as with many other bills we're seeing this session, they just don't know." She mentioned an estimate on similar legislation last year of $80,000 that it would have cost the state. CHAIR LYNN noted that everyone wouldn't be called to duty. Number 0220 REPRESENTATIVE FATE asked what would happen with regard to benefits if someone were killed while on military duty. He also asked what would happen if the person decided to remain on military duty with the regular state pay and other benefits for 30 years. He asked whether there is any remedy for this. REPRESENTATIVE KERTTULA said she would double check. She then remarked that if a person weren't covered under state benefits, those easily could be lost. CHAIR LYNN said this is a valid point, but suggested hearing testimony and then holding the bill over. He called upon Lieutenant Commander Honse, thanking him for service to his country. Number 0439 CHRIS HONSE, Lieutenant Commander, Director, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary for District 17, told members the U.S. Coast Guard is simultaneously an armed service of the United States under 10 U.S.C. 101 and a law enforcement agency under 14 U.S.C. 89. As the lead federal agency for maritime homeland security, it is responsible for upholding America's maritime security against terroristic threats, with the imperative of preserving fundamental liberties and economic well-being. It has active- duty, civilian, reserve, and auxiliary personnel. As its missions and responsibilities continue to expand under the Department of Homeland Security, the dependence on every component of the U.S. Coast Guard's forces grows correspondingly. LIEUTENANT COMMANDER HONSE noted that the Alaska Coast Guard reserve component includes 42 (indisc.) reserves and 28 "inactive ready reserves." Of the 80 U.S. Coast Guard reserves serving currently under "Title 10" orders throughout Alaska, 38 reside permanently in Alaska; of those, 6 are state employees. He reported that current reserve members serve as sea marshals and provide protection. He noted that the statutory purpose of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary was expanded under the Coast Guard authorization Act of 1996. LIEUTENANT COMMANDER HONSE said currently there are 403 U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary members in Alaska. Although they cannot be called to active duty, commonly they are placed on "official orders" to provide support in executing search-and-rescue missions, responding to environmental pollution, "backfilling" active-duty positions, and conducting low-risk harbor patrols. As volunteers, they receive no monetary compensation. Continuation of pay and benefits would assist these members, he said, since it would help alleviate financial concerns, add stability, and reduce uncertainty while these people are deployed away from their families. Number 0703 REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH asked how many U.S. Coast Guard members would be affected by this bill. LIEUTENANT COMMANDER HONSE said 6 for the reserves, and estimated 20 to 30 on the auxiliary side. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH noted that Section 3 says this is retroactive to September 11, 2001, but that Section 4 also says this Act takes effect immediately. He asked about the former and suggested that a retroactive date to September 11, 2001, would take care of some of the indeterminate nature of the fiscal impact, since the impact since that date can be determined. REPRESENTATIVE KERTTULA said it's a good point and could provide at least a range. Referring to Representative Fate's questions and surmising that the issue is whether someone could abuse the system and double-dip, she asked whether there have been such instances. LIEUTENANT COMMANDER HONSE said he wasn't aware of any. CHAIR LYNN remarked that most people who retire from the military after 20 years cannot live on military retirement, whatever their rank, with a few exceptions "who wear stars." Number 0898 JULIE BENSON testified as the wife of a man who is a state trooper and a member of the Air National Guard. She told members: This bill is important to our family specifically. My husband has been a trooper for four years, and we're currently stationed in Ketchikan. We have one daughter, with another child due in July. After six years of active military service, Adam joined the Alaska Air National Guard as a KC-135 crew chief in 1997. Last year, after the tragic events of September 11th, Adam's unit, the 168th Air Refueling Wing based at Eielson Air Force Base, was activated. For this family, activation means that Adam is taken away from us for as long as the United States government needs his services. Last year, Adam was gone for six months. There is no way for us to know when the Guard will call again or for how long Adam will be gone the next time. I would like to help you understand that HB 228 is essential legislation for state employees who make the difficult choice to serve not only their state, but also their country. When my husband was activated last summer, our benefits through his employment as a trooper were immediately discontinued. This resulted in lost retirement contributions as well as the loss of certain pay raises he would have received had he remained employed by the state. Adam and I feel that any loss of pay and benefits due to his activation just is not right. The individuals who choose to perform service to their country as well as their state are exemplary public servants and should not be penalized by the state, especially at a time of significant national crisis. These people are federal and state servants because, as you've noted, they choose to be - not because they have to be. Just last Friday, House Joint Resolution 18 was transmitted to the Office of the Governor, and as I understand it, HJR 18 calls for full support of the men and women who are currently protecting not only our freedom, but the freedom of citizens abroad. This resolution is a wonderful show of support. However, these words don't mean very much when the same administration denied my husband his annual pay increase based on the grounds that he had, quote, "failed to demonstrate a greater value to the state", end quote. He was unable to demonstrate a greater value to the state because he had been deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Number 1088 MS. BENSON continued: My husband is a unique individual who feels compelled to serve in every aspect of his professional life. When he left the Army, there was never a question of whether or not he would continue to serve his country. He immediately joined an active Air Guard unit that is frequently deploying its members worldwide. Though we understood the potential sacrifice of this decision, it was never up for debate. Civil service is what Adam is all about. And despite the family compromises that we make, I'm so thankful for the men and women like my husband, and I'm very proud to be his wife. The passage of this bill is the right thing to do. Under current state policy, the men and women who are called to service are punished by their employer, the State of Alaska. I doubt that the passage of this bill will change any of their decisions to continue their voluntary military service. It's just what they do because it's the right thing for them to do. The right thing for the rest of us to do is to use every avenue available to support them as they and their families make incredible sacrifices to protect and to defend. Please support the men and women who choose to serve our great nation and our great state, by supporting House Bill 228. CHAIR LYNN noted that he'd sponsored HJR 18. He asked Ms. Benson to [thank her husband for his service]. Number 1248 MS. BENSON, in response to questions from Representative Fate, said her husband only receives payment for being in the Guard or the reserves when he is there working for them. There is no supplement to his state trooper pay just because he chooses to be in the Guard. REPRESENTATIVE FATE asked whether Mr. Benson was on leave from the troopers while serving with the Guard. MS. BENSON said he was on military leave. REPRESENTATIVE FATE surmised that Mr. Benson had one salary, either from the troopers or the Guard. MS. BENSON affirmed that. Number 1330 DEBRA GERRISH began by addressing a question posed by Representative Fate earlier. She said the federal law called USERRA [Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994] provides for holding an employee's job for only five years. After that five years is up, the person's job is gone. Noting that she is the wife of an officer in the Army National Guard who has served for 22 years, Ms. Gerrish agreed with Ms. Benson's testimony that these people serve because they feel it is the right thing to do. MS. GERRISH told members she is very interested in this bill and has done a lot of research on it. She noted that Tennessee has done something similar through Executive Order 4. Also noting that she'd testified on a similar bill last session that didn't pass, she told members she'd looked at what she could remove from the bill, if necessary, in order that it could pass. She reported that when her husband is deployed, the family loses $15,000 to live on, but can survive [on the salary]. However, she must have the health benefits. Her family has two asthmatics and cannot afford to lose those benefits. Therefore she asked that the health-benefits aspect be retained above all. MS. GERRISH provided an example. Her husband is deployed on the 26th of a month, called to active duty. The [state] benefits extend to the end of that month. Then, according to Alaska law, he can ask for another month of health benefits. After that month is over, however, the family has nothing. She pointed out that when someone is called up by the Army, the person must be called up for a particular number of days before dependents are covered. She said there were people called up [following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001] whose kids had no insurance for months. She stressed the need to look at how the different laws work together. MS. GERRISH reported that she'd called Tennessee, where many National Guard members who also are state workers are covered by [Tennessee's executive order that is similar to this legislation]. She concluded by saying she can scrape by on military pay, although it is difficult for some others. However, loss of health benefits is hard on everybody. She pointed out that people making $15,000 or less a year cannot afford COBRA [Comprehensive Omnibus Budget Reform Act] payments for insurance. Number 1623 BUTCH STEIN began by referring to USERRA, suggesting that everyone read Title 38, Chapter 43 [of the United States Code (U.S.C.)]. He suggested that would address some of Representative Fate's questions, for instance. He agreed with Ms. Gerrish that the maximum [for an employer to have to hold an employee's job] is five years. He then told members: The reason I want to talk to the group is not on the monetary side. I'm just talking about the parts that USERRA addresses, which is, one, that you cannot deny a person employment because of their activity in the uniformed services, and you cannot discriminate ... or take any actions against them ... because they're members of the uniformed services. You cannot charge them vacation time. Now, the State of Alaska authorizes, I believe, it's 16 days of military leave per year. But if they are activated, some employers would like to say they have to use their personal vacation or leave time while they are gone. That is not correct; that's against the federal law. All benefits available at the time of call up to duty are immediately available upon return to work. There's no waiting period involved. You're entitled to, day one, when you get back to work, ... all your benefits in return. Number 1710 MR. STEIN suggested there may be a violation involved in the situation described by Ms. Benson with respect to her husband, suggesting his anniversary date may have been changed, which directly affects benefits, retirement, and so forth. He said this flies in the face of the federal law, and he again encouraged looking at the federal law. He reiterated that he was addressing not the monetary aspects, but the protections that people should have while serving in the military and upon their return. MR. STEIN said 50 percent of the U.S. military are Guard or reserve members, and shouldn't be penalized for participating and protecting the rights of others. Referring to earlier discussion, he agreed this service is voluntary, but pointed out that a person can be called to active duty for as long as five years; although he recalled that it was only two [years] for any one campaign, he noted that campaigns can change [rapidly], such as the change from Afghanistan to Iraq. He said these volunteers love their state and country, and "represent us 100 percent." He added, "To think of them in any other light would be a real miscarriage of justice as far as how we think about these people. These people are true patriots." MR. STEIN offered that HJR 18 seems to really support the troops, and suggested that is the direction to continue. He mentioned collective bargaining and labor agreements, and said all of them should be brought in line with the federal law. He again emphasized his desire that people in the Guard and reserves not be discriminated against, either when going into active duty or when returning from that service. Number 1864 MR. STEIN closed by referring to an article he'd read recently that said if a military person expires while on duty, the spouse receives $90 a month until remarriage, the children get $250 [apiece] a month until age 18, and there is a lump-payment settlement of about $8,000. He suggested that isn't much money. He pointed out that the people who suffered on September 11, 2001, averaged about $1.2 million as a settlement. He said there is something askew here, and questioned the ability to put a monetary value on a patriot's service. Number 1913 CHAIR LYNN thanked participants and asked whether anyone else wished to testify; he then closed public testimony. Chair Lynn announced that HB 288 would be held over.