States respond to grassroots Legion campaigns

Within the span of three days, the governors of two states have signed bills that grant in-state tuition rates to all eligible veterans pursuing higher education, regardless of their legal state of residency.

In each case, The American Legion, at the grassroots level, was instrumental in the passage of the new laws that simplify residency requirements for student veterans who physically reside in their school’s state but, due to their service connections, may have “official” state residency elsewhere. Such students have often been subject to the payment of much more expensive out-of-state college and university tuition.

On March 28, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman affixed his signature to the untitled LB740, a bill originally introduced by state Sen. Sue Crawford. Its text reads, in part: “A person who is a veteran… and has been off active duty for two years or less or who is a spouse or a dependent of such a veteran who enrolls in a public college or university in this state shall be considered a resident student… if the veteran is registered to vote in Nebraska and demonstrates objective evidence of intent to be a resident of Nebraska."

Legionnaires from the Department of Nebraska lobbied assertively in favor of this short but impactful bill in testimony before members of the Nebraska legislature. Michael D. Helm, presently the National Commander's Representative to the National Legislative Commission, tells the story: “I received a heads-up on this important piece of legislation from Veterans Employment & Education Division staff in Washington, D.C. I contacted Doug Boldt, who is Nebraska's Legislative Council Vice-Chairman, (and) we developed his testimony.”

Helm continues, “We also contacted other Legionnaires encouraging them to also be present (at the hearing). Following the testimony we visited with Sen. Crawford and her staff. We made plans for a grassroots effort to contact other senators across Nebraska to build support.”

Boldt, former Department of Nebraska Commander, delivered the testimony that he and Helm had crafted to members of the state senate’s education committee on Jan. 21, 2014. The word count in the statement far exceeded that in the bill itself, necessarily offering persuasive arguments.

Boldt said, in part, “I sit before you on behalf of the nearly 36,330 Nebraska Legionaries who continue to advocate for our veterans and the opportunity for them to receive a quality education.

“'Out-of-State' or non-resident tuition is often two to three or times that of 'in-state' tuition,” Boldt continued. “For example, a student enrolled at the University of Lincoln for fifteen hours for two semesters would pay $8,060 dollars while a non-resident would be billed $21,388 for the same tuition and fees. This bill would be a $13,328 savings to the veteran.

“(Many) states have recognized that waiving the time required to establish ‘residency’ for tuition purposes benefits the state,” Boldt said. “The American Legion is proud to support this effort in Nebraska. We see the veteran taking advantage of this bill and becoming long-term productive citizens of the state of Nebraska. Their service to this nation is an indication of their ability to be a valued Nebraska citizen.”

As evidence that Boldt’s points were well taken by legislators is the fact that the bill became Nebraska state law a little more than two months later.

Only the weekend had passed when, on March 31, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the so-called “Florida GI Bill.” Its enactment, according to its promoters, makes the Sunshine State “the most military-friendly state in the nation.” While that statement may be subject to challenge, the wide ranging Florida measure, HB 7015, funds improvements to Florida military bases and allocates $1-million a year to a marketing campaign designed to lure veterans to jobs and homes in Florida. The new law also, under the name of its imbedded “Congressman C.W. Bill Young Veterans Tuition Waiver Act," grants in-state tuition status to qualified student veterans.

In Florida, the veteran friendly legislation was promoted heavily by the state’s Legionnaires – as had been the case in Nebraska. The Sunshine State campaign began in earnest a year before HB 7015 was signed with a round of introductions and a common call to action among Legion members and their allies in the Department of Defense and the non-profit Student Veterans of America.

Such Legion-led grassroots campaigns across the country have yielded encouraging results. According to the latest count, 23 states have now enacted laws providing student veterans an in-state residency waiver and nine states have a school or school systems granting student veterans such a waiver. In-state tuition legislation is pending in an additional nine states.