Pa. Gov. Rendell Urges State Pick Up National Guard Life Insurance Tab

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has urged state legislators to pass a law to have the state pay for the life insurance premiums for National Guard soldiers and airmen on active duty, and a leading Republican senator said he would push for the measure.

In a letter to lawmakers, Rendell, a Democrat, said the deaths of seven Pennsylvania guardsmen earlier this month “brought home the crushing reality of our war against global terrorism.”

He asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to have the state underwrite the $312 annual premiums for $400,000 in coverage offered by a federal program. He also asked lawmakers to pass a range of other benefits for veterans and guardsmen that were in a package he proposed earlier this year.

Rendell’s was sent one day after The Associated Press reported that bills in the House and Senate to subsidize Guard life insurance were not approved before the General Assembly recessed for the summer in early July.

“It’s the least we can do,” Rendell told the AP in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. He noted that the premium costs pale in comparison to the $24 billion state budget.

“We spend that money before breakfast over here in Harrisburg,” Rendell said.

Rendell said he wants the benefits, which would cost about $1 million per year, to apply retroactively.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader David J. Brightbill, R-Lebanon, said the life insurance subsidies were likely to be considered after the General Assembly reconvenes next month, even though spending bills are normally considered as part of the state budget.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get this on the governor’s desk this fall,” Arneson said.

The Pennsylvania National Guard has more than 3,350 soldiers and airmen serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Eleven have been killed while on duty in Iraq, and Rendell said he would review those cases to make sure their estates have received the optimal amount of benefits.

The benefits package for mobilized guardsmen and reservists that Rendell wants includes college tuition and student loan support, reduced hunting and fishing fees, priority for state-funded child care and job training, and some health-insurance coverage.

A new law to allow state income taxpayers to donate to needy guardsmen and their families by checking a box on their state tax returns passed the Legislature earlier this year. Several other proposals — including payment of the life-insurance premiums — are still pending before the General Assembly.

The House passed a package of bills to address discrimination against those serving in the military, provide college aid, reduce hunting and fishing fees, extend paid leave and make certain absentee-voter ballots more private. The Senate did not act on those bills.

J. Andrew Crompton, counsel to Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer, said the Senate is likely to take up how the tax-return checkoff money will be distributed this fall, and the chamber probably also will debate other military-benefitslegislation.

“I think it’s likely that a couple other measures will be considered as well, yes. I’m not saying the entire package that was passed by the House,” Crompton said.

House Majority Leader Sam Smith said in a statement that the Insurance Committee is trying to clarify what the pending premium-subsidy bill would accomplish and is also researching other issues.

“First, to ensure that passage of this bill … won’t set precedent for the state paying benefits to all Pennsylvanians in federal employ; and secondly, monitoring action by Congress to have the federal government pay these important benefits,” said Smith, R-Jefferson.

Rendell said he was “stunned” by the suggestion that paying life insurance costs for active-duty guardsmen would set a bad precedent.

“The precedent we’re setting is if someone who’s serving with the Pennsylvania National Guard dies in the service of their country in a foreign country, we’re going to help them with their life insurance costs,” Rendell said.

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