At a Capitol news conference this week, Senate Democrats outlined a comprehensive package of legislation designed to help veterans and their families deal with issues as they return to civilian life from military service.

According to Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), the Saluting Pa. Veterans plan contains measures that promote veterans' education, housing and jobs in addition to initiatives that provide monetary assistance, counseling services and relief for families.

"Saluting Pa. Veterans is a plan that addresses many of the issues that confront those who served in the military and their families," Costa said. "The package was designed to smooth the transition for veterans from military service to life at home."

Senate Democratic Appropriations Chair Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia) said the various initiatives will direct aid toward veterans and their families, plus it is a fiscally responsible plan at a reasonable cost that it is simply the right thing to do.

"Our veterans and their families have made sacrifices and have given so much in defense of our country it is time that lawmakers step up and help them deal with issues here at home," Hughes said.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs and Military Preparedness Committee, Sen. Tim Solobay (D-Washington), was one of the leaders that helped bring the significant package together.

"We have all seen and heard stories about the struggles of veterans," Solobay said. "The legislation in this plan is targeted at specific problems and it will go a long way toward helping veterans and their families."

As of Sept. 30, there are more than 22 million veterans in the U.S. with more than 995,000 veterans currently living in Pennsylvania. The Senate Democratic plan features initiatives including:

$40 million in bonds to provide payments to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars;

A pilot peer-to-peer counseling program for veterans to address post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, and rising rates of suicide;

$20 million for veterans' housing projects, and veteran preference in public housing;

Housing assistance grants to homeless or imminently homeless veterans and help with down payments or closing-costs for veterans buying homes;

Increased funding for Veterans' Emergency Assistance Program, along with extended deadlines, and expanded maximum Military Family Relief Assistance;

Doubling educational assistance to help offset fees and costs and increasing the years the assistance is provided;

A training program under the Department of Health to help emergency service providers recognize and treat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injury as well as creation of the Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Military Sexual Trauma Public Service Announcement Fund;

Priority for subsidized child care to veterans and families of active duty military;

Expanded eligibility for veterans in the disabled veterans tax exemption statute (such as, exempting 50 percent of Social Security and Railroad Retirement Benefits from the calculation)

A task force to study health-care issues unique to women veterans, including accessibility and quality of care;

Call on the U.S. Congress to increase funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Senate Democrats had previously introduced several legislative items within the context of their PA Works plan. These have been incorporated in the Saluting Pa. Veterans plan. These initiatives include:

Development of a training program to help veterans start small businesses; creation of a $5 million veteran-owned businesses loan guarantee; new tax credits for hiring unemployed veterans; new standards to incorporate education and training in the military into education credits to help expedite the obtaining of a degree; increased veterans' preference points for civil service examinations, from 10 to 15.

Senate Democrats said that they hoped their Republican colleagues would embrace their plan and push many of the initiatives forward.

"Helping veterans and their families has never been a partisan issue for Democrats or Republicans," Costa said. "Over the years, we've worked together to identify and solve problems and we are hopeful that our Republican colleagues will join us in pushing many of the elements in the plan."

Senate Democrats have estimated that the total cost of the plan to be $61.1 million.