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Minnesota tax bills seek reductions for veterans' spouses

Veterans fill the Capitol Rotunda during a Veterans Day on the Hill event at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Monday, March 20, 2017. Veterans Day on the Hill is a day when Minnesota veterans of all eras gather to announce the 2017 legislative agendas for the 350,000 veterans in Minnesota. Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press. 1 / 2
Andru Peters, center, and other veterans recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a Veterans Day on the Hill event at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Monday, March 20, 2017. Veterans Day on the Hill is a day when Minnesota veterans of all eras gather to announce the 2017 legislative agendas for the 350,000 veterans in Minnesota. Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press.2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Widows and widowers of disabled military veterans in Minnesota could be eligible for a permanent property tax exemption after their spouses die under a bill working its way through the state Legislature.

Current Minnesota law allows an eight-year limit for surviving spouses to benefit from an exemption of either $150,000 or $300,000 market value, depending on the veteran's level of disability.

Once the exemption runs out, property taxes can create an especially challenging financial situation for spouses of Vietnam veterans, legislation supporters say.

David Hanson, Faribault County veterans services officer, said during Veterans' Day on the HIll Monday, March 20, health problems stemming from exposure to Agent Orange have led to an especially high death rate among Vietnam veterans.

"It's one of those things where they're dying at a quicker rate than World War II vets," Hanson said. "With the high rate of our Vietnam veterans passing, the women are younger, so this makes a big difference financially because they're still in their working ages."

The proposal is among several Minnesota tax bills aimed at reducing financial burden for veterans and veterans organizations like American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

One bill would reduce property taxes on veterans organization facilities by more than 30 percent.

Rep. Bob Dettmer, House veterans affairs division chairman, said he hopes the provision is in the legislative tax bill.

A Republican from Forest Lake, Dettmer said he expects local businesses and taxpayers would be willing to absorb some of these taxes.

"I think most people can say they don't mind a few more dollars that's going to go to a cause that deals with our schools and our veterans," said Dettmer, a Forest Lake Republican.

Another bill would modify how the state taxes charitable gambling sponsored by organizations like the VFW and American Legion.

Taxes, Dettmer said, would be collected on the net amount raised after the posts distribute donations to their communities.

Veterans' advocates like Tommy Johnson on Monday discussed their legislative priorities with Minnesota lawmakers.

Johnson, a legislative officer with the VFW Post 425 in Hopkins, said tax reduction bills would help not only veterans, but the surrounding communities.

"The biggest winner right now is the state of Minnesota," he said. "The more the state takes, the less we can give out to local high schools, fire departments, police departments and to help veterans. At the end of the day, that's what we're about."

Housing for veterans has also gained attention in Minnesota, a state that faces both a housing shortage and an increasingly older population.

A bill in both the House and Senate would appropriate $16 million in state funds to build two new 70-bed veterans homes: one in Bemidji, one in Montevideo.

If Minnesota includes the homes' funding in a state borrowing bill, the proposals would still have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The federal department would cover 65 percent of the construction costs.

"It could be low on their priority list, but it's up to them," Dettmer said. "We want to get it on our priority list. The first thing is to get it on our bonding bill, then we can go from there."

Other veterans bills:

• A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources budget request includes lowering the requirement for free hunting, trapping and fishing licenses for veterans from 100 percent disability to 50 percent.

• A bill to modify laws that classify impersonation of a military or police officer a misdemeanor would include active service military personnel and veterans to the the classification.

• A bill modifying Minnesota's GI Bill would allow veterans to use the bill to cover costs like school applications, exams, licensing and other certifications.

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