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North Carolina lawmakers pass a fix to under-funded military family scholarships

By WILL DORAN | The News & Observer | Published: January 15, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Many children of military veterans receive college scholarships in North Carolina. But late last year, some of them found themselves suddenly hit with an unexpected bill from their schools, after the scholarship funding ran out.

The state addressed that problem for last semester by taking money from this semester’s scholarship fund. But since that was only a temporary fix, state lawmakers approved more than $2 million in new funding for the scholarships on Tuesday.

“I urge you to concur with this bill,” said Republican Sen. Danny Britt, himself an Army National Guard member, just before the state Senate voted unanimously to approve the extra money.

Students at community colleges and universities are eligible for the scholarship — which helps cover tuition as well as room and board — if one or both of their parents qualify as “deceased, disabled, combat or POW/MIA veterans.”

The state government’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has been funding the scholarships with about $9.2 million annually, The News & Observer reported last year, after the funding issues came to light. But as the number of eligible children has grown, state lawmakers said they would increase the funding by about $2.4 million per year.

State officials told colleges about the increased funding, and schools responded by raising the amount they planned to charge the state per student, the N&O reported. But the legislature has yet to pass the new budget. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it, and Democrats and Republicans in the legislature haven’t been able to reach a compromise.

That meant students were left facing unexpected costs since colleges were billing them assuming they had more scholarship money than they actually did.

Tuesday’s vote came at a particularly poignant time for some military families in North Carolina, as around 5,000 troops from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune deployed last week to the Middle East among heightened tensions with Iran.

Democratic Sen. Kirk DeViere, who represents Fayetteville and other areas near Fort Bragg, asked the legislature to join him in a prayer, after the votes were done, “not only for the men and women who deployed but their families.”

The legislature was only back in Raleigh for a single day on Tuesday, with a primary goal of overriding Cooper’s budget veto. That failed, but lawmakers were ready with a separate bill containing the $2.4 million in promised scholarship funding.

The scholarship bill sped along quickly, passing unanimously in both the House and Senate before being sent to Cooper, who is expected to sign it into law.

The scholarships had already been funded for this semester, after Cooper authorized the veterans department to take money from the spring semester’s funds to retroactively pay the shortfalls that caused the controversy in the fall. But that meant the legislature had to act to provide funding to fill in the gap that would otherwise be waiting when this semester’s bills come due.

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