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Bill would extend state tuition benefits to peacetime veterans

The Senate Veterans and Military Affairs committee Wednesday approved legislation aimed at extending state tuition benefits to those in the military who served during peacetime.

Currently, state law allows the wife, widow or child of a veteran who served in wartime and had a service-related disability of 20 percent or more may have up to 100 percent of their tuition paid for at one of the state’s public universities. The benefit does not include other fees. The Department was told several years ago that it could not extend those benefits to those who met the other qualifications for the bill, but served during peacetime.

“Our department was very disappointed to not be able to extend benefits to peacetime veterans in Jan. 2011,” said Sandy Speakman, general counsel for the Alabama Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “We were told that legally, we could no longer do that.”

Wartime service is determined by dates established by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA considers the country to have been at war since the start of the Gulf War on August 2, 1990; spouses and children of anyone who has served in that time and suffered a qualifying disability could receive the tuition payment. The VA website says the end of the current wartime period must be set by presidential proclamation or law.

Under VA regulations, the most recent peacetime era ran from May 8, 1975 -- the end of the Vietnam War -- to August 1, 1990.

Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattvillle, has for several years brought bills that would delete the wartime service requirement, though they have failed to get through the full Legislature. Taylor said Wednesday the legislation would allow equal treatment of all veterans.

“Everyone who signs up and puts on the uniform assumes the risk of going to war,” he said.

It is not known how many people statewide would qualify for the benefit should Taylor’s bill pass, though Speakman said the office has denied 228 applications for benefits under the bill. The bill would be retroactive to 2011; the Legislative Fiscal Office estimates the bill would cost the Education Trust Fund $3.67 million in the current fiscal year; $2.25 million in fiscal year 2015, which begins on Oct. 1, and a gradually declining amount of money in the following years, bottoming out to $688,000 in 2020 and years after that.

The bill now goes to the full Senate.
 

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