Local News

'GI Bill' seeks to make Fla. friendlier to veterans

TALLAHASSEE - Pitching an aggressive state "GI Bill," Republican legislative leaders want to attract more military veterans to the Sunshine State and attract more people to the Florida National Guard.

The hefty proposals (HB 7015 and SPB 7020), which include spending $14.5 million a year for an expansion of free tuition for members of the National Guard, would create a nonprofit to market Florida to former members of the U.S. military. Also, they would upgrade state armories, ease professional licensing for veterans and offer a waiver for all honorably discharged veterans from having to pay out-of-state tuition charges at state colleges and universities.

The potential overall costs remain unknown.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said last week that efforts are being made to ensure money is available to cover all the personnel who are expected to seek the various educational and business incentives.

"Those numbers will become more defined as the bill moves through the process," Betta said.

The biggest one-time cost would be to speed a revitalization program of state armories, which the National Guard projects will cost about $30 million.

The Department of Military Affairs has requested $12.5 million for the upcoming year for armory improvements, providing upgrades for six facilities.

The intent of the overall measure is to create more opportunities for Florida, said Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, as they endorsed the Florida GI Bill on Wednesday.

"We believe that there are some things that we can do to make sure we are the most military friendly state in the United States of America, bar none," Weatherford said.

The proposal would also help military personal shift into civilian life, Gaetz said.

The state's unemployment rate has fallen to 6.2 percent, but the jobless mark for veterans in Florida stands at 7.3 percent.

"Despite developing leadership skills, despite having certain amounts of discipline and being drug free, veterans are having a hard time finding meaningful employment in the state," House Veterans and Military Affairs Subcommittee Policy Chief Kerrington Kiner said during a briefing Wednesday broadcast on The Florida Channel. "They're having a tough time translating the skills and experiences they've learned in the military over to the civilian world."

The state estimates there are 61,189 active-duty military personnel in Florida, along with 1.5 million veterans.

In the 2012-2013 academic year, about 1,054 of the nearly 12,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard took advantage of free tuition funding through the 16-year-old Educational Dollars for Duty program.

The program, providing full undergraduate tuition at state colleges and universities, cost the state $1.8 million in the 2012-2013 academic year, according to a House staff analysis.