A coalition of Nebraska lawmakers vowed Wednesday to push for expanded veteran benefits in a state where the group's unemployment rate of 5.8 percent is nearly double the state average.

Six senators, led by Sue Crawford of Bellevue, announced at a news conference bills detailing hiring preferences, tax exemptions and workforce training.

In 2011, the White House projected 1 million service members would leave the armed forces in the following five years. Crawford said many who retired from the military after 2001 returned to an economy where they have higher rates of unemployment than veterans who retired earlier and nonveteran peers.

Crawford's measure would allow private companies to have voluntary hiring preferences for veterans and spouses of disabled veterans. It also goes with a measure passed last year that gives veterans a preference in the hiring process for state and government jobs. At least 12 states, including Iowa, have adopted similar programs, she said.

Other bills announced Wednesday include one by Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld to more effectively transfer military training to civilian experience and another to subsidize on-the-job training for veterans.

Of the 71,000 veterans in the Nebraska workforce, almost 4,000 are actively seeking employment, said subsidy bill sponsor Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha. The bill would grant businesses up to $12,000 for the first six months to cover on-the-job training costs for veterans.

"We need to fight for our veterans like they have fought for our country and state," Nordquist said.

The bills, while aimed at Nebraska's more than 143,000 veterans, also attract skilled military retirees to the state's workforce, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce Vice President Jamie Karl said. In 2013, 52 percent of business leaders in 35 Nebraska communities said they had difficulty recruiting qualified employees. Karl said the proposed legislation would enhance the Chamber's Good Life for Veterans initiative, which connects unemployed veterans with employers.

Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston also introduced a resolution Wednesday to provide veterans with direct access to local health care services rather than force them to travel long distances to federal veterans hospitals. And Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue said he plans to introduce a bill later this week further exempting military retirement from state income tax.

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