Senate passes Tester bill to aid American Legion

Great Falls Tribune

by Erin Kelly

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jon Tester won unanimous Senate approval Friday for his bill to help modernize the nearly 100-year-old American Legion.

The Montana Democrat teamed with Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller on legislation to bring the American Legion into the computer age by enabling veterans to pay their dues online. Under current law, legion members must pay their dues by cash or check to their local posts.

The American Legion Charter Modernization Act also protects the nonprofit group's national and state offices from lawsuits against local posts.

The legion, the nation's largest veterans' service organization with 2.4 million members, was chartered by Congress in 1919. Any changes to the organization's charter must be approved by Congress and signed into law by the president.

"Despite all the gridlock in Washington, it's refreshing to see that everyone can agree on common sense, and I'm pleased we got this done on behalf of the American Legion," Tester said. "This simple change will make it easier for more veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to get support they need and share their support with fellow veterans if they decide to join the American Legion. I hope the House of Representatives passes this bill as quickly as possible."

An identical bill is pending in the House and could come to a vote in that chamber as early as this month, lobbyists said.

Tim Tetz, the legion's legislative director in Washington, said the provision allowing veterans to pay their dues online on the legion's national website will make it easier for younger veterans to join the legion or renew their memberships.

"People will say to me, 'Hey, I pay all my bills online, let me pay my dues online as well,'" Tetz said. "I personally don't even have a checkbook anymore. The old requirement of paying dues by check or mail was becoming a problem for a newer era of veterans."

The legion's national website already allows some veterans to pay online as part of a pilot program, but the approval of Congress was needed to make the practice permanent. Since July, about 75,000 veterans have paid their dues online as part of the test program, Tetz said.

He said the bill also should help the legion reduce its legal costs by making it clear that the local posts, the 50 state legion offices and the group's national headquarters in Indianapolis are autonomous entities when it comes to lawsuits.

"When someone sues because they've tripped and fallen at a local post, they would often sue the state and national organization as well," Tetz said. "They were looking for the deep pockets to try to get more money in court. Nearly every time that has happened, the courts have released the state and national organizations because they have no control over what happened at the local post."

By changing the legion's charter, the bill would codify what the courts have been ruling and make it easier for the legion's headquarters and state offices to be released from lawsuits against local posts, Tetz said.

"We can spend less money fighting lawsuits and spend it instead on serving veterans," he said.

The legion's programs include American Legion Baseball, which educates young people about sportsmanship and citizenship, and the Heroes to Hometown Program, who provides re-integration assistance for wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The legion also provides scholarships and donations to veterans and their families.