It’s doubtful the state Legislature will handle less controversial legislation than the “Florida GI Bill” bill.
But that doesn’t make the measure, which has passed the House and Senate unanimously, any less significant.
The legislation sends a forceful and useful message about the state’s appreciation of its military personnel and installations.
Such state support can be a critical consideration when Washington determines which bases or operations to eliminate during budget cutbacks, a looming concern as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month proposed a major downsizing of our military forces.
Much is at stake. Florida has 20 major military installations that, along with defense-related operations, have a $73 billion annual economic impact and account for 758,000 jobs. State officials say it ranks behind only agriculture and tourism as an economic driver.
Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base alone has an economic impact of about $5 billion. And it is encouraging news that President Obama’s budget calls for adding eight aerial refueling tankers to the base’s 16 KC-135 tankers. The Florida’s congressional delegation should back that allocation — just as state legislators are working together on behalf of the military.
Florida has 1.5 million veterans and 61,000 active duty personnel. So the legislation is wisely aimed at making Florida, as Senate President Don Gaetz said, the most “military friendly state in the nation.”
An important provision would allow any honorably discharged veteran to pay in-state tuition to universities and colleges. It also allocates $1.53 million to fund tuition scholarships and book stipends for National Guard members.
To protect bases from the “encroachment” of development projects incompatible with military operations, the legislation provides $7.5 million to buy buffering land around some bases, including MacDill.
It also provides $12.5 million for the renovation and maintenance of National Guard armories, some of which have not been modernized since the 1960s.
The legislation creates “Florida Is For Veterans,” a nonprofit agency within the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs that will promote the state to veterans and assist military retirees moving to Florida, such as helping them find employment.
Among other actions, the bill will allow veterans to waive certain state professional license fees.
The only part of the legislation that has generated any concern is language encouraging military commanders to “collaborate with the Commissioner of Education” on the “operation and control” of on-base charter schools. Some are concerned this could weaken local school districts’ oversight. In the current process, the local school board must approve a charter request, though its rejection can be appealed to the state.
It is a touchy issue because Hillsborough recently rejected a charter request for MacDill Air Force Base. We think there should be discussion about whether base commanders shouldn’t have more authority to make such determinations. After all, they best understand military children’s specific needs and have a vested interest in their welfare. In any event, this bill doesn’t alter the charter process.
What it does do is demonstrate that Florida’s regard for its military partners is beyond debate.