Wednesday, March 10, 2010

DAV-WI LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: State Assembly to Hold Hearing on 2 Bills, Vote on a 3rd

“Fixes” to veterans education programs, adding a member to the Council on Veterans Programs on the agenda

Written by Anthony Hardie, DAV-WI Special Assistant/Council on Veterans Programs Representative

(Madison – DAV-WI) - The Assembly Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs, chaired by Rep. Steve Hilgenberg (D-Dodgeville) will hold a public hearing on two important veteran-related bills on Thursday, March 25, 2010, at 2:00 p.m. in room 225 Northwest of the Wisconsin State Capitol, in Madison, Wis. 

The hearing will be immediately followed by a committee vote on a third veteran-related bill.

To support these three bills, please contact your state Representative and Senator and members of the Assembly Veterans and Military Affairs committee.  All can be found at www.legis.wi.gov.

AB 702

The first of the two bills for the public hearing is Assembly Bill 702, authored by freshman legislator Rep. Kristen Dexter, D-Eau Claire, which “fixes” the part-time study problem in  the veterans tuition reimbursement program for veterans who exceed 11 credits.  Since WDVA pushed for cuts to the program as part of austerity measures to aid the Veterans Trust Fund, an unintended consequence has come about that has led to the denial of reimbursement for otherwise eligible part-time students who went over the 11-credit part-time “limit.” 

This bill would provide a “fix” for that issue.  According to the State of Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau analysis:

Currently, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs reimburses eligible veterans for tuition and fees for certain secondary or post−secondary education. The maximum
number of credits for which a veteran may receive reimbursement is determined based on the amount of time the veteran served on active duty.

Under current law, a veteran generally must begin studies within ten years after separating from the military to receive tuition and fee reimbursement for the studies. However, current law provides exceptions to this ten−year rule for part−time study. A veteran may receive reimbursement for up to 11 credits for a semester that begins more than ten years after separation if the veteran enrolls in no more than 11 credits that semester; if the veteran enrolls in more than 11 credits that semester, he or she may not receive any reimbursement.

Further, for a summer semester, a veteran may receive reimbursement for any number of credits, subject to maximum credit limits. Current law limits reimbursement for studies begun more than ten years after separation to 60 credits.

This bill provides that a veteran may receive reimbursement for tuition and fees for up to 11 credits for a semester that begins more than ten years after separation from the military, even if the veteran enrolls in more than 11 credits that semester.

According to WDVA, the estimated fiscal effect on WDVA is extremely small: FY10 is $80,100 and $84,900 for FY11.  There is no fiscal impact for the UW System since all costs are paid by WDVA from the Veterans Trust Fund.

This bill was authored by Rep. Dexter and co-sponsored by Wisconsin State Assembly Representatives Berceau, Vruwink, Molepske Jr., Brooks, Pridemore, Bies, Hebl, Sinicki, Turner, A. Williams, Gunderson, Jorgensen, Zepnick, Grigsby and Clark; the bill was also cosponsored in the Wisconsin State Senate by Senator Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls), and Senators Harsdorf, Lassa, Olsen, Darling, Coggs, Taylor, Schultz, Hansen and Carpenter.

AB 835

The second of the two bills for the March 25th hearing is Assembly Bill 835, which would add a representative of the Blinded Veterans Association of Wisconsin to the Wisconsin Council on Veterans Programs.

This bill was also authored by Representative Dexter, and co-sponsored in the Assembly by Representatives Suder, Hebl, Berceau, Mason and Petersen.  AB 835  was also coauthored in the state Senate by Senator Kreitlow, and co-sponsored by Senators Taylor and Carpenter.

Assembly Bill 781

An Executive Session for the members of the committee to vote on Assembly Bill 781, which had a public hearing earlier this month, will be held at the conclusion of the public hearing.  AB 781 is Chairman Hilgenberg’s compromise “fix” to the Wisconsin G.I. Bill tuition remission administrative changes created by the UW System (UWS) to limit its costs after passage of the biennial budget. 

According the the state Legislative Reference Bureau:

This bill requires the Board of Regents and each district board to grant full remission of academic fees charged for 128 credits or eight semesters, whichever is longer, less 50 percent of the number of credits or semesters for which the student received educational assistance under the federal ROTC Program, the federal Veterans Vocational Rehabilitation Act, or the federal New GI Bill. As such, if astudent received 128 credits or eight semesters of educational assistance under those federal programs, the bill permits the student to receive full remission.

The Wisconsin G.I. Bill tuition remission has been a bone of contention for the UW System since its 2005 inception because the “cost” of the waived tuition isn’t paid back in full by General Purpose Revenue (GPR) tax dollars – even though key state legislators on the Assembly veterans committee have made it clear that the waived tuition is a “sticker price” and what is really owed to UW is the “wholesale cost.”

UW officials, including Don Nelson, lobbyist for UW-Madison, have worked hard since the program’s birth in 2005 to cut or even shut down the program entirely – again, based on its cost.

In 2007, a proposed legislative cut to the Wisconsin G.I. bill tuition remission resulted in a unanimous (16-0) vote by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to make the cut.  Led by an early WDVA alarm, the resulting outcry from veterans and the public led to a full legislative reversal of the cuts.

So it was no surprise when UW found a way to administratively limit its overhead, despite the fact that lawmakers never approved the cut in last year’s budget legislation.

However, unlike in all previous attempts by the UWS and others to administratively limit the Wisconsin G.I. bill program’s benefits to veterans, these administrative changes by UWS were left unchecked by WDVA and required the legislature to step in.

This time around, veterans organizations and CVSOs will have to work hard to overcome the UW System’s power inside and outside the state Capitol. 

This important bill was authored Rep. Hilgenberg, and co-sponsored in the Assembly by Representatives Turner, Hubler, Sinicki, Ziegelbauer, Lothian, Garthwaite, Pope-Roberts, Berceau, Smith, Soletski, Pasch, Young and Molepske Jr..  In the state Senate, the bill was co-authored by by Senator John Lehman (D-Racine), and co-sponsored by Senators Holperin and Taylor.  The bill has received public support from the CVSO Association of Wisconsin.

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