Flanked by military veterans, members of the Florida National Guard and lawmakers, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Monday the "Florida GI Bill," modeled after the World War II-era program and intended to make Florida the most military-friendly state in the nation.
The wide-ranging measure (HB 7015), rushed through the Legislature the first week of session as a priority of House and Senate leadership, provides university tuition waivers for veterans, pays for military and guard base improvements, is expected to help increase employment opportunities for veterans and allocates $1 million a year to sell the state to veterans.
Andrew Sloan, a Georgia native who spent six years in the U.S. Air Force and has been lobbying lawmakers since September on behalf of student veterans, said the bill will draw other veterans to Florida's universities.
"We served our nation and we only ask for that which we earned, by virtue of our service, (to) be there when we get home," said Sloan, who is now a political science and German double-major attending Florida State University.
Scott tied his own experiences when leaving the U.S. Navy to wanting to support veterans and active duty service members.
"I remember when I got out of the Navy back in the early '70s, it was not a good time to get out of the service in this country," Scott said after the signing ceremony at the National Guard Armory in Panama City. "Our veterans were not respected; it was a tough time. We're going to make sure that is the most military-friendly state for active-duty members, but also for all the veterans."
One local veteran is happy to see the legislation support veterans. Joshua Eubanks, a UNF sophomore, who served four years in the Marine Corps, including time in Afghanistan, will see financial support from the new bill.
"I was surprised that it moved so fast," Eubanks said. "I knew they had been working on it for quite some time, but it was a big relief to me. When I was overseas in Afghanistan, I was there protecting every state in the United States. When I got back, I didn't think it would matter which state I went to school in."
Before the bill was signed, Eubanks was set to pay at least $6,000 per semester in tuition.
The fight for veterans is not over. Eubanks told Channel 4 he wants to see every state adopt the same measures as Florida. He believes that way every honorably discharged veteran can have a great education in any state.
"This issue has really opened my eyes to a life," Eubanks said. "I can do something to help fight for veteran's rights. Just because Florida has done this, there's some other states that still haven't and the veterans going to school in those states deserve the same thing."
According to the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, the state currently houses 1.5 million veterans, of which nearly one-third are from the Vietnam era and 231,000 served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Florida's nursing home population includes nearly 114,000 World War II-era veterans and more than 178,000 veterans of the Korean conflict.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz crafted the package during a statewide "listening" tour last summer.
Weatherford called the legislation "the most important bill that we'll pass this legislative session."
Scott says the bill will boost Florida's economy.
The package, expected to cost more than $30 million in its first year, includes an anticipated $12.5 million for ongoing upgrades of the state's National Guard facilities and $7.5 million to purchase a total of 45 acres of buffer lands around MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville and Naval Support Activity Panama City.
The proposal also requires Visit Florida to spend $1 million a year on marketing aimed at veterans, and allocate another $300,000 to a new nonprofit corporation, Florida Is For Veterans, Inc. The nonprofit, to be housed within the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, would be used to encourage veterans to move to Florida, and promote the hiring of veterans.
Meanwhile, state universities and colleges are expected to take an $11.7 million hit in waivers for out-of-state tuition charges for all honorably discharged veterans, a proposal named the "Congressman C.W. Bill Young Veteran Tuition Waiver Act" after the late Pinellas County lawmaker who served more than four decades in Congress before his death last year.
Because in-state tuition, covered by the federal GI Bill, is thousands of dollars cheaper than out-of-state rates, lawmakers hope the new waivers encourage veterans from outside of the state to apply to Florida schools.
To assist families of active-duty service members, the bill also waives the requirement for spouses and dependents to get a Florida driver license if they get a job or enroll in a public school.