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GI Bill Marches On, Unopposed

A proposal that envisions Florida creating a state version of the post-World War II GI Bill sped through the House on the opening day of the annual legislative session.

The Florida GI Bill (HB7015), a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President DonGaetz, was approved unanimously Tuesday in the House. The issue now will move to the Senate, where it also is expected pass easily.

The bill would increase educational aid for veterans and National Guard members, increase funding to upgrade the state's National Guard facilities and buy land around U.S. military bases. Also, it would set up a non-profit to attract more veterans to Florida.

The House proposal would cost the state at least $33.5 million in the next fiscal year.

Rep. Jimmie Smith, an Inverness Republican and Desert Storm veteran who has spearheaded the House version, said the legislation is intended to attract more veterans who will eventually become business owners and community leaders. It is similar to the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 - better known as the GI Bill of Rights - that was crafted to help those who served in World War II assimilate back into civilian life.

Within a decade, nearly half the 16 million World War II veterans took advantage of education or training programs made available through the GI Bill.

"They drove the nation for generations of success and I say with this piece of legislation the next greatest generation is going to start, and it's going to start right here in Florida," Smith said.

The House measure is expected to cost $12.5 million for ongoing upgrades of the state's National Guard facilities and $7.5 million to purchase land as buffer aroundMacDillAir Force Base in Tampa, Naval StationMayportin Jacksonville and Naval Support Activity Panama City.

Meanwhile, state universities and colleges are expected to take an $11.7 million hit for the waiver from out-of-state tuition charges for all honorably discharged veterans, called the Congressman C.W. Bill Young Veteran Tuition Waiver Act.

The federal GI Bill allows veterans to only receive reimbursement for the listed cost of in-state tuition, which is seen as a deterrent for out-of-state veterans applying to Florida's schools. In-state tuition is thousands of dollars cheaper than out-of-state tuition.

The bill also creates a nonprofit corporation, Florida Is For Veterans, Inc., to encourage veterans to make Florida their home and promote the hiring of veterans.

The Senate version (SB 860) goes before the Appropriations Committee on Thursday. The committee appearance is the bill's only scheduled stop before reaching the Senate floor.

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