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August 20, 2019

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The Policy Racket

Candidates Berkley, Heller need Nevada veterans on their side

Left: Dean Heller speaks at the grand opening of the Mandarin Oriental at CityCenter on Dec. 4, 2009. Right: Shelley Berkley laughs with constituents during a "Congress on the Corner" event Jan. 14, 2011, at her Las Vegas office.

Left: Dean Heller speaks at the grand opening of the Mandarin Oriental at CityCenter on Dec. 4, 2009. Right: Shelley Berkley laughs with constituents during a "Congress on the Corner" event Jan. 14, 2011, at her Las Vegas office.

VA hospital

Nevada is one of the few states where the population of veterans is on the rise, making it an increasingly important voting bloc. In their battle for U.S. Senate, Rep. Shelley Berkley and Sen. Dean Heller both need those votes.

Berkley has had good sway with veterans, after persuading convincing Veterans Affairs in 2008 to build its newest hospital in North Las Vegas. It opens next year.

And Heller has been making it a priority to ensure that people don’t break the bank getting there.

Heller introduced the third iteration of his bill to provide veterans a tax cut to offset travel costs getting to and from medical care facilities.

“Many veterans throughout Nevada are traveling more than an hour and over great distances in poor health in order to receive primary care,” Heller said in the statement announcing the bill’s introduction. “This travel can be costly and strenuous for veterans and their families, especially when they are coping with a disability. This tax break provides some well-deserved relief for these veterans and makes it easier for them to attend appointments necessary for claiming the benefits they earned while serving our country.”

The deduction is up to $400 annually and would help rural veterans — those living more than 25 miles from the nearest VA hospital — who use the medical centers in Reno, Sacramento and Salt Lake City, as well as the one under construction here.

The definition of “rural” includes Las Vegas Valley residents who are farther than 25 miles from the new facility at 6900 N. Pecos Road.

But the tax break won’t do too much to help the neediest vets. The deduction only benefits veterans with independent income, because veterans benefits (disability, education, etc.) aren’t taxable. So if you’re a veteran living more than 25 miles from the hospital and you’re unemployed — or marginally employed, because standard deductions mean nobody pays taxes on the first several thousand dollars of annual income — you can’t get the helping hand.

Tax breaks are a common means of providing a public benefit, as they let wage earners keep more of their wages (or at least get a refund check from the government). Because the poorest of the poor don’t pay taxes, they can’t claim the break.

According to numbers from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center published in The Wall Street Journal today, 93.4 percent of the poorest 20 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes. Nationwide, about half of wage-earners pay income taxes, even if they are chipping in payroll taxes with every paycheck.

That’s part of the problem facing lawmakers as they struggle with tax reform over the coming months. But back to veterans.

Berkley and Heller will vie for the veteran vote as they face off in the Senate race to replace departed U.S. Sen. John Ensign. Heller is serving out the remainder of his term, which ends next year.

Each appeared this week at the annual Blinded Veterans Association conference and both said they weren’t campaigning.

Their independent legislative efforts on veterans affairs also date to 2008, long before Ensign’s infidelity scandal that would bring down his career.

But their once apolitical efforts are taking on new political significance given the climate surrounding them. (Heller reintroduced his bill — this time in the Senate — one day after he and Berkley appeared at the veterans conference.)

The new VA hospital won’t leave the poorest vets in the cold when it opens. It is to includes a resident nursing center and will have a shuttle service, though the hours and radius of travel aren’t yet clear.

The VA also reimburses mileage, at 41.5 cents per mile.

The North Las Vegas VA hospital is expected to start serving patients next summer.

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