TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Pitching an aggressive state "GI Bill," Republican legislative leaders want to attract more military veterans to the Sunshine State and attract more people to the Florida National Guard.
The hefty proposals (HB 7015 and SPB 7020), which include spending $14.5 million a year for an expansion of free tuition for members of the National Guard, would create a non-profit to market Florida to former members of the U.S. military. Also, they would upgrade state armories, ease professional licensing for veterans and offer a waiver for all honorably discharged veterans from having to pay out-of-state tuition charges at state colleges and universities.
The potential overall costs remain unknown.
Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Thursday that efforts are being made to ensure money is available to cover all the personnel who are expected to seek the various educational and business incentives.
"Those numbers will become more defined as the bill moves through the process," Betta said.
The biggest one-time cost would be to speed an ongoing revitalization program of state armories, which the National Guard projects will cost about $30 million.
The Department of Military Affairs has requested $12.5 million for the upcoming year for armory improvements, providing upgrades for six facilities.
The intent of the overall measure is to create more opportunities for Florida, said Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, as they endorsed the Florida GI Bill on Wednesday.
"We believe that there are some things that we can do to make sure we are the most military friendly state in the United States of America, bar none," Weatherford said.
The proposal would also help military personal shift into civilian life, Gaetz said.
The state's unemployment rate has fallen to 6.2 percent, but the jobless mark for veterans in Florida stands at 7.3 percent.
"Despite developing leadership skills, despite having certain amounts of discipline and being drug free, veterans are having a hard time finding meaningful employment in the state," House Veterans and Military Affairs Subcommittee Policy Chief Kerrington Kiner said during a briefing Wednesday broadcast on The Florida Channel. "They're having a tough time translating the skills and experiences they've learned in the military over to the civilian world."
The state estimates there are 61,189 active-duty military personnel in Florida, along with 1.5 million veterans. More than 115,000 of those veterans served during World War II, while nearly 500,000 are considered Vietnam-era veterans.
In the 2012-2013 academic year, about 1,054 of the nearly 12,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard took advantage of free tuition funding through the 16-year-old Educational Dollars for Duty program.
The program, providing full undergraduate tuition at state colleges and universities, cost the state $1.8 million in the 2012-2013 academic year, according to a House staff analysis.
The Legislature's Guard tuition proposal far outpaces the increase to $3.5 million that Gov. Rick Scott recommended in his $74.2 billion fiscal package on Wednesday.
Guard leaders were open to any increase.
"One of the great opportunities the Florida National Guard has to offer is being able to continue our education --- not just to obtain a higher education level --- but to build our knowledge base for the National Guard and life itself," Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw, head of the Florida National Guard, said in a release.
Florida National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. James Evans added in an email that the support from state lawmakers is another example of why Florida already "has the reputation of being the most military-friendly state in the nation."
Besides the $14.5 million budget request to cover the Guard's tuition, another $1 million would be needed to upgrade the current computer programming used to administer the program.
The non-profit, to be called Florida is For Veterans, would be used to promote the value of military skills to private businesses and to set up a marketing campaign to encourage former members of the military to remain in Florida or to make the state their permanent home.
No cost projection was available for the non-profit.
The cost of the tuition waiver for all honorably discharged veterans --- called the Congressman C.W. Bill Young Veteran Tuition Waiver Act --- starts at $8.2 million a year, based upon current enrollments of students on the federal GI Bill in state colleges and universities. But the total is expected to go up as more veterans are drawn to Florida's schools.
Currently, military veterans using the federal GI Bill can only receive reimbursement for the listed cost of in-state tuition, even if they are not from the state
For non-Florida veterans, the out-of-state charge is around $15,279 per academic year for undergraduate programs in the state university system, while the amount is $8,407 for those in the Florida College System, according to the Board of Governors.
The waiver is included in the House measure and currently stands in an individual Senate bill (SB 84) that has already received full support of the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security Committee, the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
The House proposal is scheduled to make its first committee appearance Tuesday before the Appropriations Committee.
The Senate measure, which is expected to become the catchall for SB 84 and other veterans' related proposals, is scheduled to be discussed in the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security Committee on Tuesday.
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