HELENA — U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, speaking to the Montana Legislature on Thursday, said he’s declaring a “war on veteran unemployment” and will push legislation to help veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan get jobs.
Baucus, a Democrat, said the first bill he introduces in the new Congress will coordinate federal efforts to help veterans find work and make it easier for vets to transfer their military skills to the civilian world.
“If you’re certified to operate as a mechanic in Kabul (Afghanistan), you ought to be certified in Billings without having to jump through hoops,” he said to enthusiastic applause from state lawmakers.
Baucus, Montana’s senior U.S. senator, addressed a joint session of the Montana House and Senate in the House chambers at the state Capitol. Gov. Steve Bullock and other statewide elected officials also attended the speech.
Baucus spoke about his legislative agenda, recapped last week’s congressional battle over the “fiscal cliff” legislation and urged the new Legislature and governor to work together to address the state’s challenges.
“In all my years in public office, I’ve never seen such a time of toxic partisanship in the public sphere, especially in Washington,” he said. “Obviously, we have no choice but to work together. …
“This is a great beginning for all of you. … I urge all of you to take advantage of that. I know it’s corny, but I believe it.”
Baucus, 71, is in his sixth term as a U.S. senator, having served since 1979. He’s up for re-election next year and has indicated that he plans to run for a seventh six-year term.
A week after Congress passed a package averting the “fiscal cliff” of federal tax increases and steep spending cuts, Baucus touted several components of the package: permanent, high federal tax exemptions for inherited estates, extended tax credits for college costs and businesses that hire new workers and the permanent extension of current federal income tax rates on all but the highest incomes.
Congress shouldn’t pat itself on the back, however, and needs to “get serious about tackling our debt,” he said.
Baucus got perhaps his biggest line of applause when, talking about energy development in Montana, he said “after years of studies, it’s time to cut through the red tape and put Montanans to work on the Keystone (oil) pipeline.”
He also elicited another standing ovation when he honored the Skillman family of Helena, which has three family members serving in the U.S. Army Reserve in Afghanistan.
Amber Skillman and her 4-year-old daughter, Suzie, attended the speech, but Amber’s husband, Jaymes, and her daughter’s grandparents are in Afghanistan.
“Let’s all recognize Suzie and her mom, Amber, for holding down the homefront,” Baucus said, to rousing applause.
Baucus noted that 1,000 vets were unemployed in Montana in 2011 and that the unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that year was 17.5 percent nationwide.
He pointed to his past work on tax credits for businesses that hire vets, and said his new legislation will ensure military job certifications for veterans can act as civilian licenses for jobs such as mechanics, truck drivers, firefighters, police officers and others.
He said the bill also will require multiple federal agencies working on veteran employment to set goals for better coordination.
“This is just the first step,” Baucus said. “We have a lot more work ahead of us to end veteran unemployment once and for all.”