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Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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State Senate approves veterans bill

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers Tuesday sent an omnibus military bill containing language aimed at promoting charter schools on military bases to Gov. Rick Scott, who says he will sign the measure.

Though the bill passed both chambers of the Legislature on unanimous votes, language that encourages military base commanders to work with the Department of Education to sprout charter schools on military bases prompted heartburn for some Democrats, including those in the Tampa Bay area.

“I want to know whether or not… this in any way changes the rules with respect to the establishment of charter schools in Florida,” asked state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

State Sen. Garrett Richter, the Naples Republican who authored the proposal, said that it’s his “complete understanding” that the language does not impact local school districts’ ability to approve and oversee charter schools, which do receive public funding.

During a committee stop last week, the only specific example discussed was a proposed charter school at MacDill Air Force. The Hillsborough County School Board rejected the plan, a move that was supported by an appeals panel.

The base had appealed to the state Board of Education but abandoned that push on the same day Richter’s charter school language was added to the larger military bill, which has been dubbed the “Florida GI Bill.”

The bill, HB 7020, has been a priority for Legislative leaders, which placed it on their joint agenda for the legislative session.

“Today we pass an extraordinarily substantive bill,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, after his chamber passed the bill on a 38-0 vote.

The House’s version of the bill, which is identical to the Senate’s measure, passed on a 116-0 vote last week.

Another one of the bill’s major provisions waives out-of-state tuition fees for out-of-state veterans who are enrolled at state colleges or universities. The provision was crafted by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

“This gives more of our veterans a fighting chance for a college degree and a good career,” said Latvala, who also filed a stand-along bill creating the waiver.

Senate staff estimates the provision could mean a loss of $5.1 million for state universities, and $1.3 million for state colleges.

The in-state tuition program is named after longtime Pinellas County Congressman Bill Young, who was the longest serving Republican member of Congress when he died in October.

If Scott signs the bill, $1 million will be allocated to Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing arm, to put together a marketing campaign aimed at getting veterans to move to Florida.

Other provisions include expanding a tuition assistance program for members of the National Guard, the creation of the Florida Veterans’ Walk of Honor and the Florida Veterans’ Memorial Garden at the state Capitol, and allowing private employers to create a “preference in employment” program for veterans who have been honorably discharged.

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