Legislature(2009 - 2010)CAPITOL 106
03/03/2009 08:00 AM House STATE AFFAIRS
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SJR 5-AK TERRITORIAL GUARD RETIREMENT BENEFITS 8:48:57 AM CHAIR LYNN announced that the final order of business was SENATE JOINT RESOLUTION NO. 5, Urging the United States Department of Defense to pay veterans benefits retroactively and to continue to provide retirement benefits for members of the Alaska Territorial Guard who served during World War II. 8:49:06 AM KAREN SAWYER, Staff, Senator Charlie Huggins, Alaska State Legislature, presented SJR 5 on behalf of Senator Huggins, prime sponsor. She said the resolution asks the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to continue retirement funds for the Alaska Territorial Guard. She reminded the committee that, in response to a legal glitch, the U.S. Army decided that [the Alaska Territorial Guard] was no longer eligible for retirement funds. The reaction to that was nationwide; Alaska's congressional delegates immediately introduced two bills, which are presently sitting in Congress. In the mean time, emergency funds were accessed that would cover retirement for 60 days only. The proposed resolution asks that the retirement fund be made permanent and thanks the congressional delegation for introducing the aforementioned legislation. Furthermore, SJR 5 urges the Department of Defense to continue to use its emergency funds until one of the congressional bills is passed or the decision made in January is reversed. Ms. Sawyer stated the sponsor's understanding is that the [congressional] bills are made part of the Defense Act, which is typically not heard until August, which is well past the 60-day extension. She noted that she had spoken with someone in Congressman Begich's office, who confirmed that "they probably will not hear this for quite some time," and "they will not be using ... any further funds to continue the retirement pace." Ms. Sawyer said the bill sponsor hopes SJR 5 will serve as a continued "urging" to Congress or the Department of Defense. MS. SAWYER, in response to a question from Chair Lynn, noted that there are 26 members of the Alaska Territorial Guard whose retirement pay was cut. There are approximately 30 members "in the works" who could "possibly be affected by this down the line, once their paperwork is completed." She highlighted that the members in question are in their 80s, living in rural parts of the state, and they depend on this retirement pay. She opined that this could not have happened at a worse time. In response to a follow-up question from Chair Lynn, she said the amount of money that is being discussed is approximately $10,000 a month. She indicated that because of the present age of the recipients, this payment would not be issued long-term. CHAIR LYNN asked if there would be any opportunity for the state to help out "as a last resort." MS. SAWYER replied that Senator Huggins has a bill to address that issue and funds would be set aside. She indicated that Senator Huggins is waiting to move the bill until hearing whether or not the Department of Defense is going to "pick up the tab for the remaining days after 60 days." She anticipated that the bill would be moved sometime this month. CHAIR LYNN said he thinks that would be a good idea. 8:53:43 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG recommended that language be added to the proposed resolution that asks Congress and relevant committees to take up and pass the aforementioned congressional bills as soon as possible and, without delay, to hold some hearings in Alaska in order to see the impact of this issue. MS. SAWYER said she will give that recommendation to Senator Huggins. She said both Senator Murkowski and Begich are trying to find vehicles into which they can insert their bills, rather than in the Defense Act. She added that the Senators are "very much on top of this issue." 8:56:06 AM McHUGH PIERRE, Director of Communications/Legislative Liaison, Office of the Commissioner/Adjutant General, Department of Military & Veterans Affairs (DMVA), noted that when General Campbell visited Washington, D.C. last week, he met with Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, who emphasized the critical timing of changing the law. He said there is pressure from DOD on the Senate. He said both Alaska Senate offices told General Campbell that they are 95 percent certain that this language will be inserted into the defense appropriations bill that will be passed this fall, and the Alaska Territorial Guard members will be funded. Mr. Pierre said this is a federal issue regarding military members that have provided service to their country. He spoke of the state's role in holding the federal government accountable. MS. SAWYER, in response to Chair Lynn, said the proposed resolution urges DOD to continue paying out of its emergency funds. She suggested that with enough letters directed to DOD, it may "continue it." She added, "Because they did act immediately upon the actions of our congressional delegation - Senator Murkowski, particularly." 8:58:45 AM MR. PIERRE, in response to Representative Gruenberg, confirmed that DOD was reinterpreting an authorizing statute. He indicated that a lawyer for the United State Army's Division of Personnel was reviewing language in statute and determined that it does not specifically say that Alaska Territorial Guard members will receive money for their time served. Mr. Pierre noted that those members would be eligible for all the medical benefits provided through the Veterans' Association if they served a full career. For example, many of those who served in the Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II, went on to serve in the military after that. He concluded, "This attorney did take it upon himself to reread the law and to signal a change, and that change was ... taken off." 9:01:10 AM MR. PIERRE, in response to Representative Gatto, clarified that although the bill language states that the Alaska Territorial Guard was formed by Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening, the entity was outfitted and operated by the U.S. Army. REPRESENTATIVE GATTO suggested adding language to clarify that it was solely the governor's idea to form the Alaska Territorial Guard. 9:02:59 AM MS. SAWYER directed attention to a handout in the committee packet, which relates information about the Alaska Territorial Guard from Wikipedia. She noted that the source states that in 1941, Major Marvin R. Marston was commissioned at the Pentagon as a major with orders to Alaska. It was anticipated that the Alaska National Guard would be taken out of Alaska because of WWII, which is why Major Marston was commissioned to set up the Alaska Territorial Guard to defend against the Japanese, who had already attacked Alaska. 9:03:57 AM MS. SAWYER, in response to Representative Gruenberg, said no one received copies of the legal interpretations or language of the federal law - not even Alaska's congressional delegates. MR. PIERRE confirmed that the department has not received the interpretation of the aforementioned lawyer. However, it did receive cooperation from the Division of Personnel "to offer language to change the existing ... code, which would allow continued funding at appropriate retirement expectations for these military members." That language, he indicated, was given directly to the offices of Senators Murkowski and Begich. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG asked if Senators Murkowski and Begich had actually asked for a copy of the legal opinion and the request was not honored. MS. SAWYER answered that is correct. 9:05:41 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG questioned why members of Congress have not responded. MR. PIERRE said he shares Representative Gruenberg's outrage, because the resolution identifies 26 elderly people in Alaska who are "in the twilight of their life." He urged the committee to support the proposed legislation. 9:06:28 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG confirmed he is outraged. He said he feels like adding language to the bill that would require Congress to honor such requests in the future. CHAIR LYNN said he agrees, but would not want to put that language into this resolution. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG emphasized that he is astounded and dismayed to hear of this. He asked for further confirmation that Ms. Sawyer is certain the information was never provided. 9:08:14 AM MS. SAWYER said, "I don't know what the exact ... terminology was that was used to their offices, just that they were not able to get the legal interpretation." She said to her knowledge, that information has still not been received. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG asked Chair Lynn to find out and let the committee know. CHAIR LYNN clarified the committee needs to know whether this is a case in which Congress refused to give information or was "totally nonresponsive." 9:09:21 AM MS. SAWYER said she had heard through a staff person in Senator Murkowski's office that the attorney who made the aforementioned interpretation received a bonus. 9:09:44 AM REPRESENTATIVE SEATON cautioned the committee not to insinuate itself into the privilege of internal communications and legal opinions of an executive department. He opined that this matter is beyond the scope of the proposed resolution. He said the well-deserving people who served in the Alaska Territorial Guard should have retirement, and he does not want the committee to get sidetracked to the point of a possible confrontation between the executive and legislative branch of Congress. He offered his understanding that there has been great communication between General Campbell and DOD. He said the legislature has been told in the past that the exact wording of a resolution is not as important as its intent, spirit, and timeliness. CHAIR LYNN echoed that he does not want to muddy the proposed resolution. Notwithstanding that, he said he would find out information related to the concern brought up by Representative Gruenberg, and keep that separate from the resolution. 9:13:03 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG concurred. The underlying issue, he said, is that if someone is denied his/her benefits, he/she has a right to know the basis for that denial. CHAIR LYNN asked if there is written opinion to access. MS. SAWYER said she will give all offices a call to determine whether the response was a refusal or a delay. REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG remarked that this could not have been the intent of a law passed by Senator Ted Stevens in 2000. He said this may have been an erroneous decision. 9:15:25 AM REPRESENTATIVE GATTO said [the Alaska Territorial Guard] receives no pay, and he asked if that could be the reason that the members of it receive no benefit, because the benefit is based on pay. MR. PIERRE answered that he does not know. 9:15:50 AM CHAIR LYNN, after ascertaining that there was no one to testify, closed public testimony. 9:16:08 AM REPRESENTATIVE SEATON moved to report CSSJR 5(FIN) out of committee with individual recommendations and the accompanying fiscal notes. There being no objection, CSSJR 5(FIN) was reported out of the House State Affairs Standing Committee.