It is great to be here today in Austin with the Texas VFW, and it is always a good day to be in Texas. Think about it: you could be at the event in Michigan or Ohio, buried in snow instead of getting a little rain, and wondering how much farther the state economy will fall while you're sitting there.
Now, I have nothing against those states, or any of the others, but I will admit that I'm a pretty competitive guy, leading a VERY competitive state. That spirit of competitiveness is what sets Texans apart, whether it's on the football field, a military obstacle course, or the business world.
There is something in the heart of a Texan that compels us to strive for number one, to take on the toughest challenges, and lead from the front. As far as our economy goes, I'd say that Texas is doing pretty well.
Just the other day, Ray Perryman, a well-known Texas economist, said that Texas is on track to be the "last in and first out" when it comes to the current crisis. He pointed to the job growth that our state experienced in three of the past six months, and the fact that our unemployment rate has remained nearly two points below the national average.
You might know Tom Pauken, a Texan who is a great friend to veterans, and chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission. He recently put out a report showing that Texas has not only produced more private sector jobs than any other state over the past ten years, we also have the lowest unemployment rate of the nation's ten largest states.
Throw in the news from Forbes magazine that we also have the lowest debt level of the ten largest states, and you can see that our competitive nature has its benefits. However, we also want to be the best when it comes to the way we treat our veterans.
Texas is one of those places that have a deep-seated appreciation for the men and women who don the uniform of our country, and risk their lives for our freedom, both while they serve and after they return home.
That appreciation drives us to ensure our veterans return from the field of battle to live a life of dignity, with the opportunity to find their place in our economy, and access to the services they were promised when they joined up. So we are investing in a couple of key initiatives, like expediting the backlog of claims applications with the VA.
You know full well that the VA has to make a decision on a claim before you can receive benefits, like medical care from VA hospitals, or disability compensation, and before you can appeal a VA decisions.
Just a few months ago, we took a look at the numbers, and found more than 39,000 applications hung up in the VA system here in Texas, with nearly 40% of them pending longer than four months. That's just unacceptable.
So I directed the Texas Veterans Commission to create a Claims Processing Assistance Team, funded out of my office, and get them to work helping the VA help our veterans. The team's main focus is accelerating the claims process by identifying applications for expedited review by the VA, and obtaining missing evidence when necessary.
Since they started, the team has requested information on 575 cases so they can be completed and forwarded to the VA. They have also sent another 866 completed cases back to the VA, and now I expect the VA to take the necessary actions, and make the necessary decisions or payments for these veterans.
So, after about two months of effort, our team has helped more than 1,400 get the attention they needed, and the services they deserve. At the same time, we're working to expand mental health treatment for veterans because the wounds suffered in a combat zone are not always visible on the surface.
We're making $5 million worth of state funding available to local mental health authorities, in grants of up to $245,000, to help them with programs like vet-to-vet peer support groups, family education and trauma therapy.
I urge each VFW Post to reach out to those authorities, and offer your expertise as to how that money should be spent in your community, and to offer your support for those vet-to-vet groups. Vet-to-vet can't work without you.
We're also supporting efforts to recruit and train practitioners to provide additional mental health support for veterans. We have invited the folks from a group called "Give an Hour" to expand their operations into key areas of our state over the next year. Their approach involves recruiting mental health practitioners, to volunteer their time counseling active duty personnel and their families, as well as veterans.
As we help veterans get their lives back together, we're also helping them re-enter the workforce, with something else we created late last year, the Texas Veterans Leadership Program. This is a pet project of the man I mentioned earlier, Mr. Tom Pauken, who created a similar federal program for Viet Nam veterans.
In 28 locations across our state, hand-picked veterans are helping Texas veterans adjust to civilian life, with training, job search assistance, and a program encouraging Texas businesses to hire them. We do this out of a sense of duty to our defenders, but I'll admit to selfish motivations as well.
Like I said before, the Texas economy is doing a lot better than most other states for a number of reasons, including our favorable tax structure, sensible legal system, and our unbeatable workforce.
I believe that adding even more veterans to our work force, and capitalizing on the leadership experience and maturity that comes from military service makes our economy even stronger.
As we gather here today, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, we do so under the mantle of liberty that you won with your brave and selfless service. Because you served, we can sleep safely at night, worship in the faith of our choosing, and speak our minds without fear of government retribution.
Whether you served on a destroyer in the Pacific, slogged your way through a rice paddy in Southeast Asia, liberated Kuwait, fought in the war on terror, or waited bravely at home while your loved one risked it all, you have made our state and our nation what it is, the greatest place to live in the whole wide world.
Thank you for all you've done and all you continue to do for our country.
May God bless you and, through you, may He continue to bless the great state of Texas.