Veterans, advocates lobby Rep. Flores for improved business and education benefits in committee hearing

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Posted: Thursday, November 7, 2013 12:01 am | Updated: 3:11 am, Thu Nov 7, 2013.

Business leaders and college officials advocated for Congress to boost financial support available to veterans who are pursuing higher education and entrepreneurship in a Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing Wednesday led by Rep. Bill Flores.

The hearing, held at Baylor University, focused on improving economic opportunities for veterans. Panel members who testified included representatives from The Dwyer Group, Texas Veterans Commission, Texas Workforce Commission, Baylor, McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College.

Several of the ideas proposed were aimed at making it easier for veterans to become business owners. Mary Kennedy Thompson, president of Mr. Rooter Plumbing and vice president of international relations for The Dwyer Group, suggested a 50 percent tax credit on franchise fees, capped at $25,000, to help veterans wanting to start a franchise business.

A bill that would have created the tax credit was introduced in 2011, but stalled.

“The tax credit, what it gives to veterans, it gets them into business faster, it gets them on their feet faster,” said Thompson, adding that she had to save up to open her first franchise after leaving the Marine Corps. “They also get to hire more people faster . . . and veterans hire more veterans.”

The Dwyer Group in 2011 joined Operation Enduring Opportunity, an initiative supported by first lady Michelle Obama to encourage franchising businesses to offer discount programs to recruit more veterans as employees and franchise owners.

The company since has helped 298 veterans start franchises, and The Dwyer Group brands have hired 624 veterans into jobs.

The company first started offering opportunities to veterans through its VetFran program, which was started in 1991 by founder Don Dwyer.

“Franchising is about systems, it’s about discipline and it needs leaders, and veterans have that,” Thompson said.

Army veteran Joseph Kopser lobbied for Congress to create a grant program that would give veterans $1,000 in matching funds for every year of service as seed money to help start their own businesses. Kopser retired from the Army this year after 20 years of service and started transportation mobile app RideScout, but said he called on military friends to raise the capital to fund the venture.

“We have served for five or 10 or 20 years, serving and protecting the American dream of free enterprise. Now it’s our turn to participate in the system,” Kopser said. “Congress can act to do things to make it easier to change the laws and help the military ease this ethos culture of (transitioning out) of service.”

Flores, a Bryan Republican, chairs the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity.

He said he hopes to incorporate some of the perspectives in crafting legislation that could lower veteran unemployment and boost the economic opportunities and impact service members can have after leaving the military.

Flores told the group the veteran unemployment rate in Texas was 5.5 percent in October, below the national average of 6.8 percent for veterans.

“Nobody knows these issues better than those right here in the real world,” Flores said.

“I hope that we can bottle a little bit of that Texas spirit and share it with the rest of the country, particularly back in Washington.”

Local college leaders advocated for various changes to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which grants veterans benefits to enroll in college.

Janet Bagby, coordinator of the Veteran Educational and Transition Services Program at Baylor, said the current $1,000 annual book allowance usually does not cover the cost of textbooks for many veteran students, especially those who also take summer classes.

Bagby also said that while the $1,100 monthly housing allowance for Baylor veterans covers expenses for living in Waco, those students face financial issues in taking a semester internship outside of the area.

“We encourage our vets to do internships, and oftentimes those internships are in cities that are much more costly to live in,” Bagby said. “We have students who go into nursing at our campus in Dallas, so there could be a stipulation in the (housing allowance) for when our students are temporarily leaving our campus.”

Kris Cervantes, veterans coordinator for MCC, urged Congress to extend the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, which helps unemployed veterans return to school to earn a degree or training in a high-demand field, before it expires in April.

She also recommended easing some of the requirements for the program, such as mandating that veterans enroll in school full-time to receive benefits.

“A lot of the vets that we’ve seen (using the program) have been out of school for 20 years,” Cervantes said. “It’s just a major culture shock to have them come in and be expected to be full-time students. We’ve seen quite a lot of dropped classes by the students as they make that adjustment.”

Speakers also shared innovative ideas their organizations have been using to improve veterans’ chances of being successful in the workforce.

MCC this semester started a Connect-a-Vet program that pairs veterans with a counselor and a veteran mentor, then places them in a volunteer role with a local nonprofit to help build work skills and gain employment references to help with job searches.

Chris Burton, a Marine Corps veteran and store manager of the Waco Home Depot, said the company created an online military skills translator that takes a veteran’s years of service, pay grade and militarry job title and translates those job duties into skills to appeal to employers on a résumé.

“The private sector and higher ed, I think, does a better job at this than the federal government, so I’d like to see ways we can leverage that knowledge that’s been created,” Flores said.

“This is only the second field hearing I’ve ever done, but I like the feedback we’ve gotten here because it’s less stiff, it’s more open and free-flowing, and I think you have a better quality of witness (testimony) than what you do in Washington.”

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