Alabama senators would trim veterans' scholarship to preserve education budget

By TIM LOCKETTE | The Anniston Star (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 16, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Lawmakers in Alabama hope to clip the wings of a state college scholarship program for disabled veterans, after growing use of the scholarship threatened to squeeze other programs out of the state budget.

"This is a difficult bill for all of us," said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, sponsor of a bill to limit the scholarship program.

Dial is a member of the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee, which voted Wednesday to approve a $6.4 billion education budget Wednesday. The budget, which increases total spending for K-12 schools and colleges by only $90 million, moves to the full Senate for a vote.

Jacksonville State University would get $38.2 million in the proposed 2018 budget, the same amount as last year. In fact, all the state's universities were level-funded this year, largely because a recently expanded scholarship program devoured much of the money set aside for a university increase.

Alabama for years has offered full-tuition scholarships for Alabama residents who who are disabled during wartime military service. The scholarship was available to their immediate family, too. Over the years, state officials began awarding the scholarships to peacetime veterans as well.

When state officials spotted the error in 2011, some families lost their scholarships. Lawmakers in 2014 voted to expand the program to peacetime disabled veterans.The move had unforeseen consequences. The state expects to pay $94 million in scholarships in 2018, up from $67 million in 2017.

"That ate through the traditional increase you would see" for higher education, said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the chairman of the committee.

Under Dial's proposal, peacetime disabled veterans would have to live in Alabama at least five years to qualify for the scholarship program. The limit now is one year. Tuition for the first two years would be limited to the average tuition at an Alabama junior college.

In earlier meetings, Dial said the program ran into unexpected costs. Students who never lived in the state, with veteran parents, attended schools at in-state tuition rates and got the scholarship. Students who qualified for other scholarships and Pell Grants were also getting the Alabama scholarship.

"That's great," said Dial, a retired National Guard general. "But can we continue to afford that?"

Dial's bill would affect only new applicants for the scholarship, and wouldn't affect current recipients. The bill passed out of the committee, as did the budget itself. Both are headed to the full Senate for a vote.

The Senate's version of the budget would preserve $1.5 million in funding for Science in Motion, a university-based program that brings lab equipment and teachers to K-12 schools. Also untouched are $40.7 million in funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative and $29 million for the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.

Some school officials and teachers expressed concern about the programs in recent months after Bentley proposed defunding Science in Motion and state superintendent Michael Sentance indicated ARI and AMSTI could be changed.

Orr said lawmakers need more detail about any proposed changes before they change funding for those programs.

"We don't have an idea of a clear path of where we're headed," he said.

©2017 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)
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