‘Victory For Now’ for College Tuition Program

INDIANAPOLIS — An effort by Indiana veterans’ organizations to protect a decades-old program that pays college tuition for children of disabled veterans is finding support in the Statehouse.

On Monday, the House education committee voted 12-0 to amend legislation that would have significantly reduced funding for the program.

The vote came after veterans’ organizations across the state mobilized members to lobby legislators to turn back a bill passed through the Senate that would only pay college costs for the children of the most severely disabled veterans.

“Our members weren’t just saying ‘no’ but ‘hell, no’ to the Senate bill,” said Terry Bruning of the Indiana Veterans of Foreign Wars. His organization worked with the American Legion, AmVets and other veterans’ organizations to stop Senate Bill 577.

Hoosier Veterans United declared “Victory for now,” on its Facebook page after Monday’s hearing. But it also warned its members there are battles still to be waged.

“We’re optimistic,” said Heather Evans, a disabled veteran and member of Hoosier Veterans United. “But there are still changes that need to be made.”

Among Evans’ concerns: The bill, as it stands now, limits access to the program to the children of military veterans who resided in Indiana at the time they entered the service.

Evans’ children wouldn’t be eligible under that provision. Although her family is from Indiana, they were living in South Carolina when she joined the Air Force because her father was on active duty and stationed at a military base in South Carolina.

Other changes made to the bill by the House education committee includes limiting the funding to students under the age of 32 and requiring students to maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

Senate Bill 577 raised alarms among veterans organizations because it would have reduced the educational benefits paid to the children of deceased or disabled veterans seeking post-secondary education.

In February, the bill passed through the Senate by a vote of 32 to 17. The bill’s author, state Sen. Luke Kenley, a Republican from Noblesville and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, cited dwindling tax dollars for almost a dozen tuition-support programs the state has committed itself to over the years.

About 5,000 children of deceased or disabled veterans are in the program, at a cost of about $18 million a year.

Demand on those programs has escalated over the last two years while state tax revenues that fund them dropped due to the recession. Kenley feared the program for the children of veterans would run out of money without some limits placed on it.

But after an outcry from veterans organizations after the Senate bill passed, Kenley and state Rep. Tom Dermody of LaPorte worked with the veterans organizations to find some compromise.

The program has been in place since 1935 when state lawmakers passed a law to provide for the children of veterans who were disabled or killed while serving their country to be reimbursed for 100 percent of the cost of tuition and fees.

The original Senate bill would have reduced funding incrementally. Only children of veterans who were killed or had a severe disability rating from the federal Veterans Administration of 80 percent or higher would have qualified for full reimbursement.

The children of veterans with less severe disabilities would receive only a partial reimbursement, based on their parents’ level of disability.

That alarmed veterans like Lloyd Ott of Howe, who has a partial disability but has been unable to work full time. He has three children. “I was counting on that money to give my kids the chance I never, which is to go to college,” Ott said.

Rep. Jeff Thompson, a Republican from Lizton and fiscal conservative member of the House education committee, said the changes made to Senate Bill 577 will help cap the program’s escalating costs. “They should work,” said Thompson.

Rep. Clyde Kersey, a House Democrat on the committee, also supported the changes. “If the veterans are for it, I’m for it,” Kersey said.

Rep. Rhonda Rhoads of Corydon and Rep. Ed Clere of New Albany, both Republicans, also voted for the amended bill during Monday’s committee hearing. “It puts some common-sense restrictions in the program,” Clere said.

• Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers, including the Kokomo Tribune.

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