A year ago, South Carolina lagged behind neighboring states in accommodations for military families, but after a bill filled with five quality-of-life measures passed the legislature in unanimous votes this week, it's now the leader of the pack, officials say.
The Military Family Quality of Life Enhancement Act of 2014 coauthored by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Wahalla, includes property-tax exemptions and enhanced absentee-voting. Four measures come from a U.S. Department of Defense list of 10 quality-of-life issues it wants states to pass before the next round of base realignments and closures, or BRAC, expected to take place in 2017.
Davis said the bill was ratified Thursday and sent to Gov. Nikki Haley Friday. He did not know when the governor is expected to sign the bill, but said the governor's office was anxious to see the finished bill.
Beaufort Military Enhancement Committee chairman Jim Wegmann said the bill's passage was "part of the equation" to position the military installations around Beaufort and the state to survive BRAC.
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"Sen. Davis and our local legislators, as well as the S.C. Military Base Task Force and the other South Carolina communities that have military bases, have all been pulling together to ensure that South Carolina leads the nation in passing these initiatives," Wegmann said.
With the addition of the four measures passed this week and two others passed earlier in the legislative session, South Carolina has adopted nine of the Pentagon's 10 measures, passing several adjacent states along the way.
The 10th measure, which would have offered service members in-state tuition at colleges and universities, was originally included in Davis' bill. He said the measure was separated from the bill and sent to a committee for review after a contentious debate, and it would be considered again in the next legislative session.
Davis said decisions about base closures will ultimately come down to economics and the need for operations performed at each base, but the quality-of-life measures could be a deciding factor if a BRAC committee must pick between similar military installations.
The new measures include:
Service members maintaining an in-state residence will retain their priority for receiving Medicaid home and community-care waivers, allowing them to keep their place on the state's waiting list even if they are stationed outside the state.
Service members and their families will be able to vote by absentee ballot in all elections in the state.
A new task force will examine issues affecting school children in military families and also open communication between the local military and state child welfare agencies.
The state's Education Oversight Committee will produce an annual report on the performance of military children in school.
Privately-owned properties used exclusively for military housing will be exempt from property taxes, a provision that was not included in the Defense Department's list of 10 issues.
Two other quality-of-life measures passed in 2014 have already been signed into law by Haley:
One creates treatment courts to handle veterans charged with nonviolent offenses, sending them to counseling and care for their underlying conditions instead of jail. That became law June 10.
A bill that allows veterans to receive hiring preferences in-state was signed June 2.