Bill would help veterans attend college in Tennessee

Robert Houk • Nov 11, 2013 at 1:48 PM

This nation has been at war for more than a decade now, and combat in Afghanistan and Iraq has meant multiple deployments for many of the men and women of our armed services. Serving in the military doesn’t make for an easy or normal life. Service men and women often find themselves moving from one base, state or country to another.That was certainly the experience of Hayleigh Lynn Perez. The former Army sergeant told the Associated Press earlier this year she felt her military life had led to a somewhat nomadic existence. She discovered that to be a hindrance when she applied to attend a state university in North Carolina (where she now calls home) under the Post 9/11 GI Bill. That law requires the federal government to pay the full in-state tuition of honorably discharged service members wanting to attend a public college or university.Unfortunately, as Perez learned, she and other recently discharged veterans often face the cumbersome task of proving residency. Not receiving an in-state designation means a veteran has to pay the difference for the tuition out of his or her own pockets.Perez, who filed a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina Board of Governors after being denied an in-state residency status, doesn’t think that is fair.“It is part of our contractual agreement when we join the military,” Perez told the AP. “It’s been paid for — with blood and sweat and tears and deployments.”Many states, including Tennessee, have tried to simplify the process for veterans to qualify as in-state students under the GI Bill. State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, is the co-sponsor of one such bill that was passed easily in the Senate earlier this year, but has stalled in the House. Crowe, himself a veteran who interrupted his own college career to serve as a military intelligence officer in Southeast Asia from 1968 to 1971, said the legislation reminded him of his own experiences.“When I came home, the GI Bill paid for everything,” Crowe said. “I guess things have changed through the years. I was very proud to co-sponsor this legislation and will do everything I can to convince the House of the importance and fairness of this legislation.”The bill’s primary sponsor in the House, state Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, told me last week he is going to need all the help he can get to move the Military Education Assistance for Tennessee Act to a floor vote. The following is an exact description of the measure as worded in House Bill 123/Senate Bill 208:This bill limits the amount that may be charged for tuition and fees to a veteran enrolled at a public institution of higher education to no more than the maximum tuition reimbursement provided under the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for eligible Tennessee residents; provided, that the veteran:(1) Was honorably discharged from a branch of the U.S. armed forces or the national guard;(2) Is eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits; and(3) Enrolls in a public institution of higher education after satisfying all admission requirements within 24 months from the date of honorable discharge.This bill requires that a veteran qualifying for the tuition rate under the Military Education Assistance for Tennessee Act must:(1) Maintain continuous enrollment; and(2) Within one year of enrolling in the public institution of higher education either register to vote in Tennessee or demonstrate by objective evidence and intent to be a Tennessee resident by obtaining at least two of the following:(1) A Tennessee driver license;(2) A Tennessee motor vehicle registration;(3) Proof of established employment in the state; or(4) Other documentation clearly evidencing domicile or residence in Tennessee.Ragan, who is one of 20 veterans now serving in the 132-member Tennessee General Assembly, said his bill ran into trouble in the House when it received an unfavorable fiscal note that estimates the measure could cost the state an additional $493,800 annually. As a result, Ragan said the bill was placed behind the budget — which meant it stalled in the House Finance Committee. That is where Ragan hopes to resurrect it when lawmakers return to work in January.It won’t be easy. Ragan said he will need to pull off a number of difficult parliamentary maneuvers just to get the bill out of committee.Despite the disappointing fiscal note, Ragan said his bill has the backing of higher education officials in Tennessee. He says they know, as he does, that changing the in-state tuition requirements will induce more veterans to remain in Tennessee when their hitches at military facilities in Millington, Tullahoma and Clarksville are up.“We want those veterans to become taxpayers in this state,” Ragan said.And, Ragan told me, it’s common knowledge that veterans are usually among the most responsible and civic-minded citizens in our communities. Why wouldn’t we want to keep their kind in Tennessee?That’s a good question. We’ll see how members of the General Assembly respond next year.Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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