Gov signs bills benefiting military

By Jason Kosena

Continuing his marathon of bill signings this week, Gov. Bill Ritter surrounded himself with active-duty military personnel and veterans Tuesday afternoon as he penned into law five bills aimed at improving benefits for members of the armed services stationed in Colorado.

Gov. Bill Ritter signs the Year of the Noncommissioned Officer proclamation.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Signed into law were:

• House Bill 1205, making it easier for overseas military members to participate in elections;

• House Bill 1280, allowing Colorado to participate in the National Guard’s Youth Challenge program;

• House Bill 1291, creating a clearinghouse where veterans and their families may get information about support services;

• House Bill 1039, making higher education affordable for military service personnel and veterans by allowing in-state tuition rates; and

• House Bill 1329, allowing additional money from the Colorado State Veterans Trust Fund to support veteran nursing homes and cemeteries.

During the ceremony, which was attended by more than 50 military and National Guard service personnel, Ritter said it is imperative for the state to focus on services and benefits that reach members of the armed forces.

“Veterans and active-duty military are key components of Colorado’s economic and social fabric, and we have a moral obligation to provide fully for them,” Ritter said during the signing ceremony. “The brave men and women who serve in the military, as well as their families, sacrifice so much for us. Which is why I am pleased to sign these bills. They send a message that Colorado respects and cares for its active duty military, veterans and their families.”

Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, speaks during a bill signing ceremony on Wednesday. Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch is on the left while Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, stands behind.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Of the bills, two in particular, HB 1039 and HB 1205, attracted public attention as they moved through the Legislature.

HB 1205 requires mail-in ballots requested by service personnel 35 days before an election to be issued at least 30 days prior to the election and extends the deadline eight days beyond the election for receiving and counting military mail-in ballots. The bill also creates a pilot program to allow military personnel stationed overseas to register and vote electronically, a provision that Brig. Gen. Bill Hudson, the commander of the Air National Guard for Colorado, called imperative.

“The governor mentioned that we have the largest deployment right now since WWII. We have almost 800 soldiers and airmen who are in service right now,” Hudson told The Colorado Statesman. “The ability to vote online is huge. If this were an election year, can you imagine the trouble they would have voting as they are deployed, if not for this new law? The fact they can go online and vote instantaneously is huge. We serve, and we are non-partisan — but we do vote.”

During his comments on the bill, Ritter agreed.

“Recognizing the sacrifice of veterans for democracy abroad, we believe we must remove all of the obstacles for overseas military to vote in elections, which are the very bedrock of our Republic,” Ritter said. “HB 1205 will make it easier for overseas military members to participate in elections and have their votes counted.”

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, said that although the nuances of ensuring security for online voting are tricky to navigate, she’s happy with the end result.

“It was definitely right for military people overseas to be able to vote,” Williams said. “But the hard part was (defining) what the process was going to be and how we were we going to work it out with our counterparts in Washington, D.C., to make it happen. I think this bill effectively finds a safe and competent process.”

Gov. Bill Ritter signs HB 1205 into law on Wednesday as Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, and Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, watch in the foyer of the state Capitol building.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

House Bill 1039 also was a hot political topic during the 2009 legislative session. The bill, which makes active-duty military and their families eligible for in-state college tuition, brought heated debate this year as some lawmakers wondered where the state was going to find revenue to fund the program. A similar measure offered last year was killed over the same objection.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said the effort to get the bill through was worth the fight.

“We are judged by the way we treat our veterans,” McNulty said. “We are judged by the way we treat the men and women who have sacrificed so much in service to this nation. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, and this is only a small thing that we can do in return. What I hope we can accomplish through this legislation is to help ease the transition for our service members back into civilian life and not forget about the husbands, wives, sons and daughters who have also sacrificed in the name of service to this country.”

Ritter’s last day to sign bills passed during the 2009 legislative session is June 5.