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Pawlenty gives a nod to troops, and then some

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty showed off the new plates in a roomful of active and retired military members. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
State officials have unveiled a new "Support Our Troops" license plate, with proceeds to benefit military programs. Gov. Pawlenty used the unveiling to propose a series of initiatives to help Minnesota veterans. Support for Minnesota soldiers and veterans may be one thing legislators can agree on in the next session.

St. Paul, Minn. — The new "Support our Troops" plates are available at license renewal stations around the state. They feature a bald eagle against a stars and stripes backdrop. The plates cost $30 more than regular plates, and the money will be divided between veterans programs and a fund to assist military families.

The model for the plates, a bald eagle named Harriet, perched in the governor's reception room, as state officials touted the new plates. Minnesota National Guard Adjutant General Larry Shellito says as more Minnesota soldiers are deployed overseas, their families back home will benefit from the plates' proceeds.

"It is imperative that we take care of the families so that their loved ones overseas can focus on their life-threatening missions, and they're not distracted because there might be a broken refrigerator, or some other things such as that," he said.

State officials estimate the new plates will raise more than $2 million over the next year and a half. Gov. Pawlenty says the plates are a tangible way for Minnesotans to say "thank you" to the troops, and he says the state should do more to help veterans. He'll ask the Legislature to phase out state income taxes on military retirement pay over the next four years. Pawlenty is also proposing college tuition incentives, such as offering in-state tuition rates to all veterans.

"That would include veterans from other states who we might want to attract or who might want to come to our state. Again, when you think about attracting talent, attracting solid citizens, attracting people who are cornerstones of our state, I think the more veterans we can encourage to stay or come to Minnesota, the better," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty also wants to increase funding for a couple of veterans programs, and give veterans preference on waiting lists for subsidized childcare and housing programs. He says his package of initiatives would cost about $12 million next year, and he would pay for them with money from a projected state surplus.

Pawlenty probably won't meet much resistance at the Capitol, where military programs have had broad bipartisan support in recent years, even during tough budget times.

DFL Sen. Jim Vickerman of Tracy, who chairs the Senate committee dealing with veterans affairs, pledged his support.

"Governor, you bring your initiatives to me, if that's your wish, and I will pass them. I will guarantee that," he said.

Pawlenty just returned from Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where he met with some of the 2,600 Minnesota National Guard troops training for deployment to the Middle East. It's the state's largest single deployment since World War II. Pawlenty watched some training exercises, and says the soldiers are working seven days a week to prepare for their deployment. He says the state should do as much as it can to thank them for their service.

"It's certainly a time of heightened use and dependence on the military, and I think our public actions and policies and statements need to reflect that," Pawlenty said.

More than two-dozen Minnesota soldiers have died in connection with the war in Iraq.

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