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New York governor backs free state college tuition for Gold Star children

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he will support a bill blocked by fellow Democrats that would provide free SUNY tuition to children of any military member from New York killed in the line of duty.

THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK

By MARK WEINER | Syracuse Media Group | Published: April 12, 2019

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he will support a bill blocked by fellow Democrats that would provide free SUNY tuition to children of any military member from New York killed in the line of duty.

Cuomo said during a visit to Buffalo that it’s possible the bill could reach his desk this year, even though Assembly Democrats on the Higher Education Committee voted Tuesday to hold the legislation.

Republicans had called the 15-11 vote to hold up the bill in the Higher Education Committee “disgraceful” and heartless.

“We have a moral obligation, a social obligation to help those families who lost their provider, their loved one, in service to this nation,” Cuomo told WGRZ-TV in Buffalo. “So, I would support providing free college tuition to SUNY schools for the children of people who were lost in service to the military.”

Some Assembly Democrats objected to the bill coming up for a committee vote a week after the Legislature passed a $175 billion budget. The budget included $27 million to provide new college tuition aid to undocumented immigrants.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan, who chairs the committee, said in a statement Wednesday that an existing state scholarship program provides generous tuition aid to children, spouses and financial dependents of military members killed in combat zones.

“The bill in question sought to extend this program to cover any service members killed or seriously disabled in any mishap while on duty,” Glick said.

She said the committee agreed to seek more detailed information from the Department of Defense “to determine how many New Yorkers might be included in this expanded category.”

The state budget passed last week included almost $2.7 million to provide MERIT scholarships for 145 students who are the children, spouses or dependents of New York military members who were killed or disabled in combat zones, said Mike Whyland, speaking for Assembly Democrats.

The maximum award under the decade-old program is $24,250 per student each academic year for tuition and related expenses.

“It’s a worthy program, but this bill would have expanded the eligibility beyond that scope and should be considered within the context of the budget,” Whyland said.

Asked about the concerns raised by GOP lawmakers, Whyland said, “It’s purely political and it’s unfortunate that they are using children as pawns.”

Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, the Assembly’s deputy minority leader, co-sponsored the bill that would have paid 100 percent tuition, room and board for the Gold Star family members to attend any SUNY or CUNY school.

By expanding aid to the families of military members killed anywhere in the line of duty -- not only in combat zones -- the bill would likely cover 500 or fewer New York college students and cost less than $6 million per year, Barclay said.

He scoffed at the suggestion that Assembly Democrats are concerned about costs and adding an unfunded mandate to the state budget.

“I think they are trying to justify the unjustifiable in my mind,” Barclay said. “I don’t think we’re talking about a huge number here.”

He said it’s not unusual for such bills to advance after the lawmakers enact the state budget.

“It’s nice to do it before the budget,” Barclay said. “But we do bills like this all the time post-budget and worry about the funding later.”

Assemblyman Al Stirpe, D-Cicero, was among four Democrats who joined all seven Republicans on the Higher Education Committee in voting against Tuesday’s measure to hold the bill.

Stirpe said in a Facebook post Wednesday that he supports the Republican bill but he condemned the GOP’s reaction.

“I supported this bill, but I cannot condone those who are attempting to turn this issue into a misleading press release that politicizes an issue we should be able to agree on,” Stirpe said, “and that is honoring families who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation.”

Cuomo suggested Wednesday that lawmakers could still find a way to pass the shelved bill this year outside of the budget process.

“It requires a legal change, but I would support that legal change, and we have many more weeks of legislative action,” Cuomo said. “The legislature’s not going anywhere, so I would support it.”

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