A bill to allow post-9/11 vets to use their G.I. Bill benefits as collateral for business startups passed an important milestone in the Senate Wednesday with growing bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of major veteran organizations.
The Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition Act sponsored by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kans., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., won unanimous approval from the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. Staff for Moran and Tester said they both would be working during the August Congressional recess to rally support for passage by the full Senate.
"After serving our nation, many veterans want to continue their service by giving back to their communities as small business owners and entrepreneurs," Moran said in a statement. "It's common sense to give them more flexibility and choice in their benefits to achieve their goals."
"Our commitment to the brave men and women who serve our nation doesn't end when they return from war," Tester said. "This bill will help veterans transition from the armed services to the private sector so they can succeed on Main Street."
On the House side Wednesday, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, introduced companion legislation on the Vet Act.
"I'm so proud to introduce this bill to help our veterans," Fortenberry said. "With this legislation, qualified veterans will be able to use the skills acquired in the military to start a business to support themselves and their families as well as our communities and economy," Fortenberry said.
In a joint statement, Sens. Moran and Tester said that nearly 550 service members transition from military to civilian life daily, and they estimated that 1 million service members will go through the transition in the next 3-5 years.
Currently, only about half of post-9/11 vets take advantage of the G.I. bill benefits for higher education or a specialized training program or apprenticeship, Moran and Tester said.
The Senate and House versions of the Vet Act would set up a three-year pilot program overseen by the Small Business Administration, in consultation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, to enable up to 250 G.I. Bill-eligible vets to start a new business or buy into an existing one, using the education benefits they would have received as collateral for loans.
Eligible vets would have to participate in an approved business training program and also develop a business plan approved by the SBA.
"This could be a game changer" in the effort to push the bill through Congress, C. Lynn Lowder, chief executive officer of the 1 Vet At A Time group, said of the Senate Committee's action.
"Our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are hard-wired for success in the business world and the VET Act will provide the capital they need to start their own businesses," said Lowder, a retired major who served with Marine Force Reconnaissance in Vietnam.
Lowder and retired Marine Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler, a board member at 1 Vet At A Time, began the uphill struggle for the bill last year by buttonholing members of Congress and their staffs, making the rounds of the think tanks, and seeking support from the retired four-star community.
They now have the support of the American Legion, the Small Business Administration, the National Guard Association, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American, the Military Business Owners Association, the Kauffman Foundation and the Association of Defense Communities.
In a letter to Moran Wednesday, American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm said that the two-million member Legion "supports legislation that would extend the post-9/11 G.I. Bill Benefit to veteran entrepreneurs to finance their small businesses."
"The fact that 62 percent of veteran-owned small businesses bootstrap their ventures with personal or family savings highlights the reality that access to capital remains an issue for the veterans' community," Helm said.
In his letter of support to Moran, retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander from 2009-13, said "the fact is that many of our veterans, especially those that have done the ‘heavy lifting' in combat on multiple tours since 9/11, simply are not inclined to return to a college classroom filled with 18-year-olds."
However, "their military experience and accomplishments have ‘hardwired' them for success in small business," said Stavridis, who "strongly encouraged" all members of Congress to get behind the pilot program.
The post-9/11 G.I. Bill signed into law in July 2008 has often been compared to the World War II G.I. Bill (Servicemen's Re-Adjustment Act of 1944), although the current bill provides a more limited range of benefits.
The new G.I. Bill pays full tuition for public colleges and universities and a national maximum rate for private schools. It also covers vocational training, and contains a housing allowance and book stipend. In cases of extended military service, unused benefits can be transferred to a spouse or children.
In addition to tuition payments and living expenses for returning World War II vets, the old G.I. Bill included low-interest loans to start a business and also low-cost mortgages and one year of unemployment compensation.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com