With the stroke of a pen Monday, Gov. Rick Scott positioned Florida to attract more veterans - beyond the estimated 1.5 million already living here - to attend college, to work and to retire in the state.
The “Florida GI Bill,” crafted to resemble the post-WWII benefits, includes measures for veterans, active-duty families and military installations.
A key provision is in-state tuition waivers for student veterans attending public colleges and universities. Student veterans lobbied for several years before lawmakers granted them the lower tuition rate now granted to vets no matter when they moved to Florida . It will cost universities and colleges an estimated $12 million.
Ray Mollison, president of the University of South Florida Student Veterans Association (SVA), said it was a team effort finally getting tuition waivers passed.
“People in the SVA, all of them together, really collaborated together to try to push this in-state tuition,” Mollison said Monday. “What this definitely emphasizes is, is that we definitely in the state of Florida facilitate veterans’ needs.”
Mollison believes the tuition benefit may attract more veterans to Florida for an education and job possibilities.
“It's something that I'm looking forward to seeing in the fall semester, when it gets kicked off, because I think we're going to see a new veteran population start flowing in,” Mollison said. "Because they realize Tampa has a great environment, a great area for employment opportunities.”
That’s what lawmakers hope as well. So the new law includes other “military friendly provisions":
- $1.5 million in scholarships for Florida National Guard members
- $12.5 million to renovate and upgrade National Guard facilities
- $7.5 million to buy land surrounding MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, and Naval Support Activity in Panama City.
- It waives state professional licensing fees for veterans up to five years after discharge.
- It grants a waiver to active-duty military family members, spouses and dependents, so they don’t have to obtain a Florida drivers license to get a job or attend public schools in the state.
- It establishes Florida Is For Veterans, a new nonprofit corporation, to promote the hiring of veterans and to get veterans to move to the state.
- It also requires the state’s tourism arm, Visit Florida, to spend $1 million a year marketing to veterans.
- It establishes the Florida Veterans’ Walk of Honor and Florida Veterans’ Memorial Garden in Tallahassee.
The new law (HB 7015) goes into effect July 1, 2014. And in a tribute to former Cong. C.W. Bill Young, the tuition wavier act was named after the Pinellas County lawmaker who passed away in 2013 after more than four decades in Congress.