Deborah Gatrell: Veterans have a home in Utah’s Democratic Party

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Commemoration of World War I Armistice 100th anniversary, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.

“Democrats believe America must continue to have the strongest military in the world … Our country has a sacred, moral responsibility to … our veterans and wounded warriors. We must take care of those who have put their lives on the line to defend us.”

— National Democratic Party Platform

Our military leaders rightly avoid partisan bickering. Those in military service focus on defending our great country knowing politics has no place in that business. Fortunately, politicians generally cooperate when it comes to military funding and taking care of veterans.

Utah tries to do this as well, with outreach from the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and a decent VA Hospital. Our Salt Lake Community College Veterans Center is award winning. Utah led the way with the first Federal Veterans Court program in 2010.

Under District Attorney Sim Gill’s leadership, Salt Lake County was first in the state to create a Veterans Justice Court. The Legislature wrestled with this idea, created a task force to study the concept, then finally started a state Veterans’ Court in Utah’s 3rd district in 2015. Provo also started a Veterans Court in 2015. The Salt Lake program should be emulated across the state in areas with large veteran populations.

Working with the VA Homeless Outreach Program and a wide range of community groups, Democratic Salt Lake City and County has been working hard on veteran homelessness for years. By 2014 the “effective rate” of veteran homelessness in Salt Lake County was zero, meaning only those few veterans who preferred to remain on the streets were unsheltered. The count of homeless veterans has increased slightly since then, but remains low. Community organizations continue working with those who will accept assistance.

Nationally, more veterans accessed housing and other vital services through a joint VA-HUD program supporting President Obama’s 2009 goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Utah’s homeless veterans benefited significantly from this program.

The Military Lending Act (MLA) to protect servicemembers from predatory payday lenders became law under President George W. Bush in 2006, and its protections for servicemembers were significantly expanded by President Barack Obama. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was charged with enforcing the MLA in 2015 and did so with great success. Inexplicably, when President Trump appointed Mick Mulvaney as interim CFPB director in 2017 this enforcement stopped, surprising the Department of Defense and veterans organizations as predatory lenders again freely targeted servicemembers. The new director asked for specific authority to protect servicemembers this year but enforcement remains lacking at present. Why? Because some Republican leaders hate the CFPB.

Democrats have been good for veterans in education over the past decade. Democratic Sen. Jim Webb pushed through the post-9/11 GI Bill in 2009, despite opposition from Sen. John McCain. President Obama expanded the program further in 2011. Since many for-profit colleges with exorbitant tuition rates and poor job placement rates took advantage of veterans through aggressive advertising, the Obama administration cracked down.

Under Trump, an important rule protecting veterans from abusive education programs was delayed and then revoked. Why? Because for-profit businesses that saddled students with bankrupting debts were closing. Veterans largely regret participation in the unregulated for-profit education industry and continue pushing to cut off incentives for for-profit schools to target veterans.

This is another example where veterans issues should have bipartisan support, but some Republicans have stumbled because it conflicts with business interests.

Almost half a million veterans without VA or employer-based health care gained health insurance through Obama’s Affordable Care Act, decreasing the rate of non-elderly uninsured veterans by 36%. Ongoing GOP efforts to unravel Obamacare would undo these gains for hundreds of thousands of veterans.

Utah’s Democratic Party is an open party. If you’re a Democrat or an unaffiliated voter, like me, who cares deeply about military and veteran issues, there’s a place for you in the Veterans Democratic Caucus. Despite chest-pounding by some, sad reality is Utah remains one of the worst states for veterans according to a recent survey. A recent national study also finds that, while Republicans talk a good game, Democrats do more of the legwork required to actually pass veteran-friendly legislation.

Join us. Let’s work together to make Utah a more veteran-friendly state.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is chair of the Utah Veterans Democratic Caucus. Join the caucus through their webpage, contact the caucus at veterans@utdems.org and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.