Legislature(2013 - 2014)CAPITOL 120

04/08/2014 01:00 PM MILITARY & VETERANS' AFFAIRS


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01:07:37 PM Start
01:08:11 PM SJR24
01:39:27 PM Adjourn
* first hearing in first committee of referral
+ teleconferenced
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
+ SJR 24 VETERANS HEALTH ADMINISTRATION POLICIES TELECONFERENCED
Heard & Held
         SJR 24-VETERANS HEALTH ADMINISTRATION POLICIES                                                                     
                                                                                                                                
1:08:11 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR FOSTER announced  that the only order  of business would                                                               
be  CS  FOR SENATE  JOINT  RESOLUTION  NO. 24(STA),  Relating  to                                                               
certain   holiday   practices    at   federal   Veterans   Health                                                               
Administration facilities.                                                                                                      
                                                                                                                                
1:08:19 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
ERIC  HOLLEN,  Staff,  Senator   Charlie  Huggins,  Alaska  State                                                               
Legislature, informed  the committee in December  2013, Christmas                                                               
cards  were   not  delivered  to  veterans   at  Veterans  Health                                                               
Administration,  U.S.   Department  of  Veterans   Affairs  (VA),                                                               
facilities  based on  the language  printed on  the front  of the                                                               
cards.  Cards that were made  by school students and that carried                                                               
the greetings  of "Merry Christmas"  or "God Bless You"  were not                                                               
delivered to  the veterans at  the VA facility in  Dallas, Texas.                                                               
He explained that  at the facility, VA policy on  this matter was                                                               
misinterpreted by  an unknown  person in  charge.   The students'                                                               
teacher was  told that the  cards were not acceptable  because of                                                               
their religious tone.  In addition,  at a VA facility in Augusta,                                                               
Georgia, high  school students  who had come  to the  facility to                                                               
sing Christmas carols were turned away.   In Iowa City, Iowa, and                                                               
in  Alabama,  holiday  well-wishers  were  not  allowed  to  give                                                               
presents to veterans  if the packages were  wrapped in Christmas-                                                               
theme paper.   Mr.  Hollen directed  attention to  the resolution                                                               
beginning on page 2, line 18 and paraphrased the following:                                                                     
                                                                                                                                
     BE  IT  RESOLVED  that  the  Alaska  State  Legislature                                                                  
     respectfully requests that  the United States Secretary                                                                    
     of  Veterans Affairs  to reconsider  policies that  are                                                                    
     currently in place that violate  the rights of veterans                                                                    
     at  the VA  hospital nationally  and to  ensure honored                                                                    
     veterans receive timely holiday gifts and cards.                                                                           
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE REINBOLD spoke of  her experience with teachers in                                                               
her  community who  were unsure  whether they  could say,  "Merry                                                               
Christmas."   She  said it  was  important to  not lose  American                                                               
traditions.                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR  LEDOUX  asked  whether  this   is  a  VA  policy  or  a                                                               
misinterpretation of a VA policy by an individual.                                                                              
                                                                                                                                
MR.  HOLLEN  answered  that  VA   policy  was  misinterpreted  by                                                               
specific individuals.                                                                                                           
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR LEDOUX  said if  there has  been a  misinterpretation of                                                               
the  policy, the  resolution should  focus on  those individuals,                                                               
and encourage VA to enforce  the existing policy.  She questioned                                                               
whether the policy needs to be rewritten.                                                                                       
                                                                                                                                
1:12:36 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
MR. HOLLEN responded that the intent  of the resolution is to ask                                                               
the Secretary of Veterans Affairs  to reconsider the policies and                                                               
to ensure  that the  policies are  correctly administered  by its                                                               
employees.                                                                                                                      
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE   GRUENBERG  expressed   his  concern   about  the                                                               
situation; however, there  is not enough information  to see what                                                               
the policy  is and to  ponder the actions  of the employees.   He                                                               
said additional  facts are needed  such as  primary documentation                                                               
and  witnesses.     Representative  Gruenberg  related   that  an                                                               
assistant attorney  general, Civil  Division, Department  of Law,                                                               
advised that his office may  investigate, but the committee needs                                                               
more  information because  four or  five months  have passed  and                                                               
other  action  may  have  been  taken.   He  suggested  that  the                                                               
committee should  be in contact  with members of the  U.S. Senate                                                               
Committee on Veterans' Affairs.                                                                                                 
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR  FOSTER  noted copies  of  an  article in  The  American                                                             
Legion  entitled,  "VA  Christmas   Card  ban  defies  law"  were                                                             
provided to the committee.                                                                                                      
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  HUGHES referred  to the  resolution beginning  at                                                               
page 2, line 19 which read:                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                
     United States Secretary  of Veterans Affairs reconsider                                                                    
     the policies  on holiday  practices at  Veterans Health                                                                    
     Administration  facilities and  rewrite those  policies                                                                    
     so that  the violations  of veterans'  rights described                                                                    
     in this resolution do not occur again; and be it                                                                           
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE HUGHES suggested that if  the policies are not the                                                               
problem, the committee  may consider the following  change:  That                                                               
the legislature  basically opposes the  action taken at  the four                                                               
VA  facilities  and  just  opposes   that  interpretation.    She                                                               
observed if the  problem was caused by the  interpretation of the                                                               
policies,  "the RESOLVE  really doesn't  match up  with what  you                                                             
said."                                                                                                                          
                                                                                                                                
1:16:42 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
MR. HOLLEN  acknowledged that  the confusion  in the  language is                                                               
just that  "we oppose the  concept of the  misinterpretation" and                                                               
"have the  Secretary of the VA  recognize the fact that  we're in                                                               
opposition of  this and we'd  like someone to be  accountable for                                                               
that action."   In further response to  Representative Hughes, he                                                               
said the policies are "OK."                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                
1:17:41 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  HUGHES  asked  what  VA's  policy  is  concerning                                                               
holiday cards.                                                                                                                  
                                                                                                                                
MR. HOLLEN  advised that as  a rule,  the chaplain at  a facility                                                               
ensures  that the  language on  the card  is appropriate  for the                                                               
veteran who  receives the  card; however,  in this  instance, the                                                               
chaplain was  not involved  in the  decision-making process.   In                                                               
further response to Representative  Hughes, he confirmed that the                                                               
chaplain would ensure that a  card bearing a Christmas message is                                                               
not given to a non-Christian.                                                                                                   
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE REINBOLD  reiterated that the resolution  does not                                                               
go far enough and described  an incident at Joint Base Elmendorf-                                                               
Richardson  (JBER).   She stated  she is  aware of  evidence that                                                               
shows that the  religious freedom of soldiers and  others must be                                                               
protected, and expressed her support for the resolution.                                                                        
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  HIGGINS told  of  his  personal experience  while                                                               
serving  overseas  in  the  military when  it  was  necessary  to                                                               
respect the law  of the land, which restricted  the possession of                                                               
some religious texts.   He agreed that the resolution  may not be                                                               
strong  enough, and  urged  for language  more  pointed than  "to                                                               
reconsider the policies [and] rewrite the policies."                                                                            
                                                                                                                                
1:22:50 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR   LEDOUX  agreed   with   Representative  Higgins,   and                                                               
questioned whether VA regulations need  to be rewritten or [staff                                                               
members at  VA facilities]  need to  be fired.   As  written, the                                                               
resolution does not clearly identify the cause of the problem.                                                                  
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG said he  was unsure of the circumstances                                                               
surrounding  this matter.     He  reminded the  committee of  the                                                               
Establishment  Clause  [of  the   First  Amendment  to  the  U.S.                                                               
Constitution]  that prohibits  the government  from favoring  one                                                               
religion over  another, and of  the Free Exercise Clause  [of the                                                               
First  Amendment   to  the  U.S.  Constitution].     He  directed                                                               
attention   to  page   2  of   the  aforementioned   article  and                                                               
paraphrased as follows:                                                                                                         
                                                                                                                                
     ...  there has  been  a federal  court  decree to  stop                                                                    
     denying   freedom  of   religious   expression  at   VA                                                                    
     facilities                                                                                                                 
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  GRUENBERG expressed  his interest  in looking  at                                                               
the  court order  and its  relevance to  the resolution,  because                                                               
this would  reveal evidence of  the circumstances.  He  urged the                                                               
committee to take the time to  gather the facts and make informed                                                               
decisions, regardless of the subject.                                                                                           
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  HUGHES  proposed  amending the  language  of  the                                                               
resolution beginning on page 2, line 18 as follows:                                                                             
                                                                                                                                
     BE  IT  RESOLVED  that  the  Alaska  State  Legislature                                                                  
     strongly  opposes  the  actions of  the  United  States                                                                    
     Veterans  Affairs officials  that prohibited  religious                                                                    
     holiday  messages  and  gifts from  being  conveyed  to                                                                    
     veterans at  Veterans Affairs facilities in  the United                                                                    
     States of  America so that the  violations of veterans'                                                                    
     rights described in this resolution do not occur again                                                                     
                                                                                                                                
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  HUGHES  explained  this change  would  state  the                                                               
legislature's opposition to  what has occurred, but  not focus on                                                               
whether VA policies are appropriate.                                                                                            
                                                                                                                                
1:27:52 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  GRUENBERG observed  that to  maintain a  credible                                                               
legislative process is to give an  opportunity to know all of the                                                               
facts, although he  said he did not want to  delay the resolution                                                               
or excuse anyone's actions.                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE REINBOLD  said she supports the  proposed language                                                               
except for limiting the affect to facilities located in the U.S.                                                                
                                                                                                                                
MR. HOLLEN stated  his support for the  clarification proposed by                                                               
Representative  Hughes.   He  stressed  that  the intent  of  the                                                               
resolution  is   to  point  out  that   these  misinterpretations                                                               
happened at four different VA locations.                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE REINBOLD concluded  that there must be  a very big                                                               
problem  to   cause  these  incidents   to  happen   at  multiple                                                               
facilities.   She urged  for the  committee to  "get this  to the                                                               
floor."                                                                                                                         
                                                                                                                                
1:31:01 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR FOSTER advocated for an  opportunity for Senator Huggins                                                               
to respond to the proposed language.                                                                                            
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR  LEDOUX  spoke  in support  of  the  proposed  language;                                                               
however,  the  federal  decree  may reveal  whether  there  is  a                                                               
problem with the policy, and she urged for its review.                                                                          
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  HIGGINS  suggested   that  the  committee  submit                                                               
proposed amendments  to one  of the co-chairs  prior to  the next                                                               
meeting.                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG  again directed  attention to page  2 of                                                               
the aforementioned  article, and paraphrased from  a statement by                                                               
American  Legion  National  Commander   Daniel  M.  Dellinger  as                                                               
follows:                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                
       ... this is a clear case of discrimination on the                                                                        
     basis of religious expression; the courts have already                                                                     
     ruled that such policies are unconstitutional                                                                              
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG  opined the above referenced  court case                                                               
may be  a controlling authority and  asked for the opinion  to be                                                               
made available to the committee.                                                                                                
                                                                                                                                
1:35:09 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR FOSTER opened public testimony on SJR 24.                                                                              
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG  stated that  if the  resolution passes,                                                               
copies should  be sent  to the  chair and  ranking member  of the                                                               
U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans'  Affairs: the Honorable Bernie                                                               
Sanders and the Honorable Richard Burr.                                                                                         
                                                                                                                                
1:36:01 PM                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR FOSTER,  after ascertaining that  no one else  wished to                                                               
testify, closed public  testimony.  He directed  the committee to                                                               
send proposed  amendments to  his aide,  Paul LaBolle,  who would                                                               
provide them to the sponsor of the bill.                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE   GRUENBERG   recalled  Representative   Higgins's                                                               
testimony  on his  experience, and  expressed  his concern  about                                                               
that policy.                                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  HIGGINS  explained  the  policy was  part  of  an                                                               
agreement between  the U.S.  military and the  host country  of a                                                               
U.S.  forward  base.    In  further  response  to  Representative                                                               
Gruenberg, he clarified that the camp was on foreign soil.                                                                      
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE  GRUENBERG  said  he  felt this  policy  would  be                                                               
troubling to military members.                                                                                                  
                                                                                                                                
REPRESENTATIVE HIGGINS concurred.                                                                                               
                                                                                                                                
CO-CHAIR FOSTER announced that SJR 24 was heard and held.                                                                       

Document Name Date/Time Subjects
SJR024B.PDF HMLV 4/8/2014 1:00:00 PM
SJR 24 - Fiscal Note - SSTA.pdf HMLV 4/8/2014 1:00:00 PM