A bill to increase the V.I. government’s burial benefit for veterans in the territory from $3,500 to $5,000 was voted out of the Government Operations, Energy and Veterans Affairs Committee Monday, moving closer to becoming law.
The bill would also provide tuition and financial benefits to veterans attending the University of the Virgin Islands, with costs paid by the V.I. government, and expand the definition of “veteran” to included members of the V.I. National Guard who served more than eight years, giving them the same benefits of U.S. armed forces veterans.
Officials from the V.I. Veterans Affairs Office and several area American Legion Posts testified last week on the bill, saying they supported its aims, so long as there was sufficient funding.
"“The money allotted now is not all being used,” Sen. Sammuel Sanes said Monday when asked how the expanded benefits would be paid for.
During budget hearings, Veterans Affairs Office Director Morris Moorehead said his office has a $200,000 appropriation for burial benefits that remains available until expended. Most of the funds are not fully expended in one year, according to Morris. In 2008, Moorehead testified $144,000 remained from the prior year’s appropriation.
At last week’s hearing Moorehead said he was concerned about the unanticipated costs of expanding the definition of a veteran and suggested limiting the expanded benefit.
On Monday, V.I. National Guard Adj. Gen. Renaldo Rivera said the change would only impact the margins, as 634 of his current crop of 833 soldiers have been called up to serve overseas at least once and so already qualified under the existing definition.
Voting to send the bill on for consideration by the Rules and Judiciary Committee were Sens. Ronald Russell, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Alvin Williams.
Absent were Millin-Young, Usie Richards and Celestino White. Sanes was present but is not a voting member of this committee.