Sen. Carlo Leone (D-Stamford), Senate chairman of the General Assembly's Veterans' Affairs Committee, has highlighted a number of the committee's priority bills for the 2012 session after a public hearing was held to gather input on the legislation.

"As more than 6,000 veterans return home to Connecticut from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they deserve our thanks and assistance," Leone said. "Momentum is continuing to build for the STEP-Up for Veterans initiative, which will help bring more unemployed soldiers into the civilian workforce by supporting on-the-job-training."

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Senate Bill 251 would establish the STEP-Up for Veterans initiative to provide grants to all Connecticut-based businesses (including non-seasonal retail) which hire an unemployed veteran, covering up to $12,000 in salary and training costs per soldier over six months. Identical language establishing the STEP-Up for Veterans initiative is also contained in Senate Bill 1, An Act Concerning Connecticut Jobs and the Economy.

"Our committee hopes to allow veterans who learn marketable skills in the military to become certified in and utilize those skills after leaving the service. The training the military provides is second to none, and to throw that away and not provide certification in the civilian world is a waste of that training and taxpayer dollars, and a disservice to veterans," Leone said. "To help veterans expand their skill sets further, we also hope to also waive tuition at the online Charter Oak College."

House Bill 5297 establishes a task force to study the use of military occupational specialty training as a substitute for comparable state licensing requirements. This would allow veterans trained in certain skills during their military service to easily become certified in and utilize those skills in the civilian workforce.

House Bill 5296 would waive course enrollment fees -- the equivalent of tuition -- at the online Charter Oak State College for wartime military veterans and members of the Connecticut National Guard.

"Transitioning back into civilian life after military service is not always easy, and occasionally veterans run afoul of the law. Pretrial diversionary programs provide first time offenders with a community-based alternative to incarceration. In recognition of their service, we hope to allow veterans who have already utilized a diversionary program a second chance to do so, and remain a productive member of society while receiving necessary support services," Leone said.

Senate Bill 114 would allow former soldiers who have committed specific non-violent offenses an opportunity to participate in pretrial diversionary programs twice, rather than only once.

"It is a sad fact that not all people respect our nation's veterans and the sacrifices they make to protect our country. Scam artists have taken to collecting money outside grocery stores to "help veterans," and then pocketing the cash," Leone said. "We have also seen vandals strip valuable copper and other metals from war memorials. We need to crack down on this kind of disrespectful and criminal behavior."

House Bill 5298 would establish and make public a list of reputable veterans' charitable organizations vetted by the state departments of Veterans' Affairs and Consumer Protection. Senate Bill 198 increases the penalty for desecrating a war memorial by doubling all applicable fines, and requiring full restitution for all costs of repair or replacement to a damaged memorial.