Florida lawmakers are advancing to the March 4 legislative session with up to $30 million worth of proposals to make the state even friendlier to military and veterans.
Two local legislators, Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, attached their names to bills that expand educational and professional opportunities for veterans.
Grimsley co-introduced SB 84, which waives out-of-state fees for veterans attending universities in Florida.
Pigman, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, co-sponsored HB 7015, the Educational Dollars for Duty program. It appropriates $15.5 million to create the Florida Veterans' Walk of Honor and the Florida Veterans' Memorial Garden, but it also requires the Florida adjutant general to develop an education assistance program for National Guard members who enroll in state colleges or technical centers or take online courses.
"Education assistance also may be used for training to obtain industry certifications," the bill reads. It will not help inactive guardsmen or Individual Ready Reserve members.
"There are a multitude of bills," said Glenn Little, South Florida State College vice president for administrative services.
House and Senate committees gave unanimous, bipartisan support on Tuesday to separate "GI Bills" backed by Republican leaders.
"The biggest thing about this is that we're literally recruiting veterans to come to Florida," said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, chair of the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security Committee.
The Space Coast, the Panhandle, Tampa and other areas around military bases will likely benefit most, said Little. Currently, only 101 students are enrolled at SFSC on the federal GI Bill or other veteran's payments, Little said.
"We're not expecting a surge," he said, even after local National Guard members returned from Qatar just before Christmas.
However, he added, veterans are "potentially great employees," so veterans who filter to Highlands County - and 20,000 have, according to the local veteran's service office, are assets to the community.
"Think about how veterans coming back from World War II were educated, and (how they) took that motivation and education to lead the nation," Rep. Jimmie Smith, an Inverness Republican and Desert Storm vet, pointed out. "That's what we want for Florida."
While attention focused on educational aid for veterans and National Guard members, the House committee on Tuesday approved amendments that added $12.5 million for upgrades of the state's National Guard facilities and $8.8 million to purchase land as buffer around MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville and Naval Support Activity Panama City.
The measure includes $1 million for technology to set up the tuition program and projects $11.5 million to waive out-of-state tuition charges for military veterans using the federal GI Bill at Florida colleges and universities.
The cost of the tuition waiver for all honorably discharged veterans - called the Congressman C.W. Bill Young Veteran Tuition Waiver Act - is expected to push the cost of the bill higher as more veterans are drawn to Florida's schools. This was the bill Grimsley co-sponsored.
"The intent is to eliminate the one-year waiting period," Little said.
The federal GI Bill allows veterans to only receive reimbursement for in-state tuition, which is seen as a deterrent for out-of-state veterans applying to Florida's schools.
For non-Florida veterans, the out-of-state tuition is around $15,279 per academic year for undergraduate programs in the state university system, or $8,407 for those in the Florida College System, according to the Board of Governors.
Tuition for in-state SFSC students is about $120 per hour. Out-of-state pay almost triple, $450 per hour, Little said. "It's the same issue for students who are daughters and sons of parents who are not legal residents."
Along with the educational changes, the bills also give military veterans and their spouses 60 months following honorable discharge from the U.S. Armed Forces to be eligible for waivers from initial fees associated with professional licensure.
Currently, the waiver is good for 24 months and only for the veteran.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.