Lawmakers consider free tuition proposal for National Guard members

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX There's a new push for a financial incentive to join the Vermont National Guard. It would mean free tuition for guard members pursuing a college degree.

"On a national level, and locally, the number one incentive to join the military is education by far," said Major General Steven Cray, testifying before the House Committee on Military Affairs Friday.

The Adjutant General of Vermont revealed a troubling concern that has developed over the past five years -- a widening gap between the annual number of retirees and new recruits. The reason, he says, is Vermont's lack of a competitive 100-percent tuition benefit offer. "They're savvy enough to know that if 'I can't find it in Vermont, I can go to Massachusetts, New Hampshire or New York and get that same benefit,'" Cray said.

Now a new proposal would allow the Guard to offer free tuition at Vermont State Colleges and Universities. For private schools and certificate programs, the state would contribute up to the same amount Vermonters pay for tuition at the University of Vermont.

That's much more than current incentives which include "interest free" loans that can be forgiven. But those benefits are tiered and require years of service. "This is an entitlement for them to go ahead and get an education in the state of Vermont and serve Vermont," Cray told WCAX.

New funding for the program would boost the baseline by more than half-a-million dollars, totaling $890,000.

It's a move that makes sense to Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex Junction. His district sees the largest number of guard recruitments. "If we're hearing from recruiters that they can't get folks in the door, and if we're looking at the importance of training in post-secondary education as people go out into their careers -- this is a win-win," Rep. Giambatista said.

The proposed bill was one of two military incentives touted by Governor Phil Scott in his State of the State Address on Thursday. The other measure would exempt military pensions from taxation. A move that that some veterans hope is approached cautiously. "If you pay taxes on social security, or pensions from your company, then you ought to being paying taxes on your pension from the military," said Robert Youngberg, a Navy veteran.

Both bills are currently in committee.