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Florida GI Bill would slash tuition costs for vets

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers are poised to approve a “Florida GI Bill,” offering tuition assistance to National Guard members and veterans returning to civilian life in the Sunshine State.

The bill is the creation of a “Congressman C. W. Bill Young Veteran Tuition Waiver Program,” which requires a state university or college to waive out-of-state charges for honorably discharged veterans returning to or resettling in Florida.

Young, the longest-serving Republican member of Congress when he died last year, represented Pinellas County and was a staunch supporter of the military.

Veterans going back to school have been paying out-of-state tuition; universities generally require 12 months of residency for in-state tuition. The bill just requires veterans to be Florida residents when they apply.

The savings are significant. For example, the University of South Florida’s out-of-state full-time undergraduate cost is $19,664 per academic year, compared with a cost of about $6,409 for in-state students, records show.

Florida is home to more than 1.5 million veterans, the third-largest population behind California and Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The GI Bill’s passage is nearly certain: House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz included it in their legislative priority list, “Work Plan Florida 2014.”

“By passing this, it will make us the most military-friendly state in America,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Lawmakers return to Tallahassee Monday to meet in committee and prepare for the annual 60-day legislative session, beginning March 4.

Bills have been filed in both chambers; the Senate plans to consider its version in the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security committee on Tuesday, and the House Appropriations committee will take up its proposal that same day.

“Gov. Scott is supportive of offering our troops in-state tuition, and will review all bills that reach his desk,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said last week.

Among other highlights, the state GI Bill would:

♦  Fund scholarships for Florida National Guard members.

♦ Pay for exams to get a license and for licensing fees.

♦ Pay for training to get industry certifications — such as welder, nursing assistant or database administrator — or pay for continuing education classes needed to maintain those certifications.

♦ Allow some courses to be taken online, including those offered by Florida State University and the University of Florida, the state’s designated “pre-eminent research universities.”

“This is so (Guard members) can take classes when they’re away overseas and not lose the opportunity to further their education,” Weatherford said.

♦ Allow for stipends to pay for books, based on funding availability.

What’s not clear is how much this will cost.

State budget officials didn’t have numbers last week, but the House version calls for $14.5 million yearly from general revenue for tuition and student fee payments alone.

There are financial safeguards built in. If a member leaves the Guard while in school or flunks a class, he or she has to pay back the program and can’t use Florida GI Bill money to retake a course.

Other provisions would extend state and local government hiring preferences to include reservists and the “mother, father, legal guardian or unremarried widow or widower” of a service member who died in combat.

Another section would create a nonprofit marketing organization called Florida Is For Veterans to “promote Florida as a veteran-friendly state … for employment and promote the hiring of veterans by the business community.”

The term “GI Bill” refers collectively to measures passed by Congress after World War II aimed at funding college tuition, home purchases and other benefits for veterans.

Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, said the state bill’s benefits will complement the U.S. GI Bill, especially for new and returning Floridians, and it adds a jobs assistance component.

“The people who are willing to put their lives on the line are probably going to be the most productive workers,” said Smith, who served 20 years in the Army, including Operation Desert Storm.

Smith said the various proposals had been discussed for years, and lawmakers decided to roll them into one legislative effort.

“We want (veterans) to be the ones who are able to come in to Florida and get jobs,” he said. “Let’s take that leadership ability, that passion, and let them be the successes they can be.”

The bill also would create a “Florida Veterans’ Walk of Honor and Memorial Garden” on the Capitol grounds using privately donated funds.

A spokesman for The American Legion, the largest wartime veterans service organization in the country, said the group supports the bill.

“As veterans, we’re not looking for a handout,” said Steve Gonzalez, the Legion’s assistant director of veterans employment and education.

The Florida GI Bill “just ensures us the tools we need to help us readjust into a society we had to leave in order to serve it,” he said.

The unemployment rate for “Gulf War-era II veterans” of the Reserve or National Guard in Florida is 7.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The overall state jobless rate is 6.2 percent.

Billy Young, the late congressman’s son, said his father “devoted his life to helping the military and our veterans.”

“I think he’d be really proud to have his name attached to anything that will help veterans, especially helping our veterans get an education and further their careers,” he said.

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