A measure that would provide up to a 100 percent home property tax break for thousands of Texas veterans who are totally physically- or mentally-disabled as a result of their military service on Wednesday, May 27, received final legislative approval, according to Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview.

For veterans with partial disabilities, they, too, would qualify for home property tax breaks of between $5,000 and $12,000 a year, he added.

An exemption reduces or eliminates the payment of taxes in this case, property taxes on the principal homestead residence of qualified military veterans in Texas.

The measure, contained as an amendment to a different bill House Bill 3613 by Rep. John Otto, R- Dayton was unanimously approved by the House on a 145-0 vote (several members were excused on important business) late Wednesday morning, May 27.

Flores, a former U.S. Army veteran, said HB 3613 would allow Texas veterans with physical or mental disabilities related to their military service to get much needed and deserved exemptions on the property taxes they pay on their homes.

"Under current law, a totally disabled veteran only can receive an exemption of up to $12,000 from the property's value," Flores explained. "However, HB 3613, as amended, it will significantly help out qualified veterans who are completely unemployable as a result of medically-documented disabilities. It will free them from paying any property taxes on their homestead."

In a tribute to Flores, Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, took to the back microphone on the House floor and credited Flores for the major achievement on behalf of disabled veterans.

"Everybody on this floor knows that one of our colleagues has been working on this for a number of years, with persistence and determination, to get this done," Hilderbran said. "I would like all of us to recognize Rep. Kino Flores for his hard work. I am glad we got this passed, but we couldn't have done it without Kino Flores."

Hilderbran's remarks drew applause from the full House.

The full House also gave Flores his due, suspending the House rules to allow Flores' name to be added as a joint author of HB 3613, along with the names of all other House members who are military veterans.

VA Hospital

plan progressing

In another related move with huge implications for the Valley the Senate on Tuesday, May 26 approved House Joint Resolution 7, also by Flores, which will ask Texas voters in November to pass a constitutional amendment authorizing the state government to partner with the federal government to build a VA hospitals in Texas, including in the Valley.

Flores envisions a partnership where the state government will pay for site and for the construction of a VA Hospital in the Valley and the U.S. Veterans Administration, which administers the hospitals, will pay for its operating and maintenance expenses.

HJR 7 must still go back to the House for a final touch-up, but Flores predicts the Valley VA Hospital measure will be yet another big victory this session for his legislative resume.

In previous legislative sessions, Flores was the key architect of legislative measures that resulted in the construction of the Alfredo González Texas State Veterans Home in McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery in Mission.

"Thousands of Texans statewide were very worried that my property tax relief measure for disabled veterans was going down in defeat, but the Legislature set aside all political differences and rivalries in order to come to the defense of disabled veterans," said Flores. "With the passage of this measure, along with our ongoing efforts to bring a Veterans Administration Hospital to South Texas, I am so proud of the Texas Legislature. I feel tall as a mountain."

No substitute

for experience

Flores is the author of House Bill 742, which is one of hundreds of bills which had been delayed from final action in the House of Representatives, and are feared dead, as a result of a legislative logjam.

The five-month regular session ends on June 1, and with its conclusion, so do the prospects of many important pieces of legislation.

Flores saved the veterans home property tax measure by using his legislative experiences and contacts to skillfully negotiate a parliamentary maneuver known as an amendment to add the entire language of his HB 742 onto HB 3613, which had received final Senate approval on Tuesday, May 26.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, added the amendment sought by Flores when HB 3613 came up for final action in the Senate on May 26.

In addition to Williams' help, Flores said, cooperation was needed and obtained from Otto in order for the disabled veterans' property tax relief language to survive.

Otto supported the amendment requested by Flores, clearing a major legislative hurdle for the issue.

The following day, on Wednesday, May 27, the House of Representatives gave its final blessing to the now-amended HB 3613, and that legislation, which contains the property tax breaks for qualified disabled veterans, is now on the way to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.

If Perry approves HB 3613, the home tax breaks for qualified disabled veterans would go into effect when local governments begin sending out their annual tax bills in the fall of 2009.

Repaying sacrifices of vets

One of several witnesses who testified or showed up in favor of Flores' original measure when it was first heard on March 25 by the House Ways and Means Committee was Joann Galich of Arlington. She spoke eloquently about the physical and economic struggles her husband, Steve, has undergone as a result of medical disabilities linked to his tour of military service as a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam.

"He served proudly with the 1st Calvary in Vietnam, like those in (the film) Apocalypse Now," Galich said.

"He could have taken an educational deferment, like many men did, or a medical deferment, like his parents wanted him to, but he chose to serve proudly."

But as time went by, her husband, who had finished his military service with honor, became a successful business owner.

Unknown to the family at the time, that military service would wind up leading to catastrophic health problems for the Texas veteran. At age 37, he was diagnosed with hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes.

By age 55, Steve Galich's health problems continued to get worse, forcing him to close down his business, a move that wound up costing the Galich's their group health insurance coverage.

"Our medical bills were eating us up, and our savings went quickly," Joann Galich recalled.

Never one to seek government help from the federal government, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs finally acknowledged that many Vietnam veterans, such as Galich, who had been exposed to Agent Orange

a poison used by the U.S. military to defoliate heavy jungle where enemy soldiers would hide was presumed to have caused Galich's diabetes.

With that determination by the VA, friends of the family encouraged Steve Galich to apply for VA benefits for which he had earned.

"They told him to get into the VA system. Reluctantly, he went," she said. "The VA turned out to be a Godsend. They have not only picked up his medical (health insurance), but they have given him disability, paid at 100 percent, because he was unemployable."

Flores' proposed law is crucial to help Texans such as the Galich family keep their home, she said.

"Now, the state may be offering some help to keep us in our home," Joann Galich said. "Along with the high insurance rate, even without a mortgage, our housing costs are $700 a month, for taxes and insurance. On a fixed income, that is very hard."

Local, statewide support

When Flores first filed HB 742 on January 22, his effort was praised by Emilio De Los Santos, the Veterans Services Director for Hidalgo County.

"We are pleased that Rep. Flores has carried this extremely important initiative for veterans of this state. This bill is long overdue and we know that Kino has always taken a proactive approach to help veterans," said De Los Santos. "This bill not only will help veterans of the past, but also veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars."

A number of major organizations also showed up in support of Flores' bill on March 25, including:

• Texas Council of Chapters - Military Officers Association of America;

• Texas Assn of Vietnam Veterans;

• Texas Association of Realtors;

• American GI. Forum of Texas;

• Galveston Co. Tax Office & Taxpayers;

• Texas Department of the Reserve Officers Association of the U.S.;

• Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations;

• American Legion Department of Texas; and

• Galveston County Tax Office.

Eligible veterans must meet disability standards set out by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

For eligible veterans who are not 100 percent disabled, the following home tax breaks would apply:

• A veteran who has a disability rating of at least 10 percent to 29 percent would qualify for a $5,000 tax break each year on the assessed value of their home;

• A veteran who has a disability rating of 30 percent to 49 percent would qualify for a $7,500 tax break each year on the assessed value of their home;

• A veteran who has a disability rating of 50 percent to 69 percent would qualify for a $10,000 tax break each year on the assessed value of their home; and

• A veteran who has a disability rating of 70 percent to 99 percent would qualify for a $12,000 tax break each year on the assessed value of their home.

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