Keeping Our Promise

In the post-911 world, many people search for ways to let our military personnel know how much we appreciated their service. Here in Wisconsin, the state created a program known as the Wisconsin GI Bill to assist veterans in attending college. The bill was signed into law in 2005 and beginning this fall offered 100-percent tuition remission to Wisconsin veterans.

Last week the committee I chair, the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education, held a public hearing to examine how the program was working. What committee members and the public learned was that we, as a state, have not kept our promise to adequately fund the program.

Not keeping our promise to veterans is not new in this country. Prior to the federal GI Bill, returning veterans were given $60 and a train ticket home. The 1944 GI Bill addressed a looming economic crisis by providing home loans, unemployment pay and higher education. The unemployment pay was used very little, but by 1947, 49 percent of all college admissions were veterans.

Today the benefits of the federal GI bill have eroded. Many rules limit benefits and even those who have served many years and now return as full time students are not able to come close to expenses, let alone rapidly rising tuition. Estimates are the GI Bill pays only 13 percent of costs at better schools.

Wisconsin’s way of saying “thank you” to our veterans is the Wisconsin GI Bill. The program pays 100 percent of tuition up to eight semesters or 128 credits and can be used at any University of Wisconsin or Technical College campus. The benefit is available to any veteran who was a Wisconsin resident at the time of entering military service and continues to be a Wisconsin resident when applying. Certification of qualifying military service is required. Dependents of servicemen killed in the line of duty or those with a 30 percent or greater service disability are also eligible.

The program has seen a great increase in interest since its inception. Currently there are more than 9,400 veterans and 1,300 dependents certified. Just last week the Department of Veterans Affairs certified 169 applicants.

Payment for the tuition program was part of the recently passed state budget. But representatives from the university system testified at the hearing that the money passed in the state budget was well short of the estimated $40.6 million needed. The university estimates that an additional $30 million is needed to fully fund the program for the next two years.

University folks testified that no one anticipated how much the program was going to cost and the strong feeling among the university system was that the cost should be shared among all campuses. One university representative said that, as costs increase, all campuses will share the costs so that no one institution is overly burdened.

A representative from the technical college system explained that, because of the unique funding of the technical colleges, under-funding the program requires that costs be shifted on to other students or to property taxpayers. He provided disturbing information about the loss of state funds in the technical college system over the past several years.

An articulate disabled veteran and full-time technical college student summed up the problem well: “Most students don’t know what is going on now. Costs are getting shifted around. This is not a fair thing to do. If government is saying your tuition is free – it should be. It should not be other students who are paying for it.”

He continued, “It is only fair that when veterans return, government hold true to their promise. If we believe in the program, the state needs to step up and put money into it. Paying for the program should not be on the shoulders of other students nor should we make the returning vets feel guilty for taking advantage of something that is meant for them.”

The committee also heard testimony from Senator Leibham (R - Sheboygan), the author of a bill to slightly expand the Veterans GI Bill. He reminded us, “We need to accept responsibility when we make a commitment. We need to prioritize the programs we have already created. We cannot create a new program when we know we cannot afford to continue it.”

Wise words for us to live by.

Have comments on state government? Let me know. Write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or sen.vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov; call Black River Falls (715) 284-1730; or Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free). Did you miss a column? You can view them all at http://www.legis.state.wi.us/senate/sen31/news/