New Mexico Law Sparks Push for Guard Benefits
By Mark Matthews, Staff Writer
Two months ago, New Mexico became the first state to begin paying the life insurance premiums of its National Guard troops, a legislative salute that has spurred similar measures in 35 other capitals.
An advocate for National Guard troops calls the flurry of bills unparalleled. And while a second state has yet to pass the measure, it has gained broad support from both lawmakers and military personnel.
"This issue has swept the country like no other issue I have seen, in part because of its fundamental genius," says John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association, a nonpartisan support group for guardsmen. "It can be done quickly. There isn't a huge price tag. And it sends a very positive message."
Under the New Mexico law, which served as a model for most other bills, the state agrees to buy a $250,000 life insurance policy for each of its Guard members through an insurance company contracted by the federal government.
Normally, a Guard soldier would have to pay $200 annually for a $250,000 policy, the most coverage allowed under this optional program. New Mexico guardsmen will receive the top benefit for free.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) told Stateline.org that he pushed for the legislation after he attended the funeral of a fallen Marine from his state. After driving by the family's "very modest home," he realized how difficult it was to continue after losing a son or daughter, he said.
"We have a responsibility, a moral duty, to take care of our own," Richardson said. "When there is a death of a service member, families and loved ones lose a lot more. They leave behind families that are not only despondent, but in many cases, without a breadwinner."
So in January, Richardson advocated a new program called "Take Care of Our Own." While the governor could not dictate what happens with the national branches of the military, such as the Marines, Richardson said he wanted to do more for the National Guard, a state-based, part-time force that serves at the command of governors in peacetime but can be called to active duty by the president.
"Our objective was to set a standard for other states and the federal government," Richardson said of the program, which will cost the state $1 million annually. "We know this is costly. We're a small state. But we believe for our 4,100 (National Guard) personnel, this is the right thing to do. So we will bear the cost."
Despite Richardson's enthusiasm, New Mexico remains the only state so far to enact a life insurance benefit for its Guard. Legislation has passed at least one house in Washington state and Oklahoma, but failed in Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi and South Dakota. (For more information on some of these bills, click here.)
In neighboring Arizona, state Sen. Richard Miranda (D) said a tight budget prevented passage of a life insurance bill that would have cost the state $800,000, "even though I don't feel that is a lot of money."
Less costly measures also were killed elsewhere, including a South Dakota bill that proposed a $100,000 policy and a Maryland measure that would have given tax breaks to philanthropists who pay the insurance premium for Guard members.
Scott Pattison, executive director of National Association of State Budget Directors, said legislators might be fearful that once passed, a life insurance bill would be politically difficult to annul in the future and would impose long-term costs.
In Pennsylvania, even members of the military community are pessimistic about passage of a life insurance bill in their home state and others. The question, again, is funding.
This type of Guard benefit could create "a bureaucratic nightmare" because it might end up costing the state bundles in unforeseen overhead and administrative costs, said Jim Davison, deputy director of veterans' affairs in Pennsylvania.
As an alternative, some states have tried less expensive means of supporting the 433,000 troops enlisted in the Air and Army National Guard, which have played a critical role in fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
According to the Guard's most recent statistics, about 42,000 guardsmen are in Iraq and almost 11,000 in Afghanistan -- a foreign deployment that represents a dramatic shift in the Guard's role from domestic defenders to international soldiers. More than 200 guardsmen have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, although none were from New Mexico.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that threw National Guards soldiers into the war against terrorism, many states have given their soldiers educational benefits, protection from creditors and safeguards against job discrimination. California, Massachusetts and New Jersey are among states that have considered additional death benefits.
In Kansas last week, the governor signed a bill that would provide free college tuition to the children of U.S. forces and National Guard soldiers who are killed, missing or captured. West Virginia offers special license plates to guardsmen. And in South Carolina, children of deployed members receive priority to attend summer camp, according to the National Governors Association, which compiled a report on states' benefits.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to debate raising the maximum amount of life insurance soldiers can buy through the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance from $250,000 to as much as $400,000.
Besides New Mexico, states that introduced bills to pay life insurance premiums for its National Guard members are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.