COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster is backing legislation that would make the state's Division of Veterans Affairs a Cabinet agency, a shift advocates say would increase the visibility of post-military care in South Carolina.
“We started this journey nine years ago and this (legislation) ought to be passed this session,” McMaster said in a Statehouse news conference on Tuesday.
Two bills in the House and Senate have not moved out of committee this year.
“South Carolina has a deep appreciation of veterans worn into its DNA," said state Rep. Bobby Cox, a Republican from Greenville and combat veteran who is sponsoring the House version of the Veterans Affairs bill.
The Division of Veterans' Affairs helps with benefits claims, manages a free tuition program, assists with veterans' nursing homes, oversees a cemetery in Anderson and administers a relief fund for guard members called to active duty.
If passed, the legislation would move Veterans Affairs to a Cabinet agency and place an advocate for S.C. veterans at the state level with leaders of other state departments such as commerce, social services and employment.
The director of Veterans Affairs would be appointed by the governor and approved by the General Assembly. The director would report to the governor.
With more than 400,000 veterans in the state, the bill would affect a large section of the state’s population.
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Republican from Lexington and the chair of the state Senate’s Family and Veterans’ Services Committee, said she believes the bill also could help draw more veterans to the state.
“I think we can improve the veterans’ benefits with this bill and increase reasons that veterans will want to live here,” said Shealy, the primary sponsor of the Senate bill on the agency. “This will encourage other veterans to come to South Carolina who might want to retire here.”
S.C. Adjutant General Van McCarty, the state's top military officer, said that while veterans issues are addressed in South Carolina, it's time to put the Veterans’ Affairs director in a position to personally advise the governor.
“South Carolina is a veteran-friendly state in many respects,” McCarty said. “But anything that we can do to highlight those issues important to veterans at a level that allows those issues to be addressed efficiently is something we need to advocate for.”