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Gov. Scott signs Florida G.I. bill into law; will cost state $30 million in first year

Florida’s Legislature made a priority of approving the state’s so-called G.I. Bill this spring, and Gov. Rick Scott followed suit Monday by signing the measure into law in Panama City, the heart of the military-rich Panhandle.

“We are working to be the most military-friendly state in the nation, and this is another step to support our brave men and women who serve our nation,” Scott said in his first signing of major legislation this year.

The legislation (HB 7015), pushed by the Republican leaders who control the Legislature but approved unanimously in both chambers in the first week of the session, provides university tuition waivers for veterans, pays for military and guard base improvements, is expected to help increase employment opportunities for veterans and allocates $1 million a year to sell the state to veterans.

Scott was joined by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and several GOP lawmakers, as well as military veterans and members of the Florida National Guard.

The legislation, expected to cost more than $30 million in its first year, includes in-state tuition breaks granted veterans that are expected to cost taxpayers $11.7 million in 2014-15 and $12.5 million for renovating National Guard armories around the state.

An additional $7.5 million is set aside for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to acquire 45 acres of buffer land needed near military bases around the state to prevent the encroachment of other industries. Those bases include MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville and Naval Support Activity in Panama City.

The proposal also requires Visit Florida to spend $1 million a year on marketing aimed at veterans, and allocate another $300,000 to a new nonprofit, Florida Is For Veterans. The nonprofit, to be housed within the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, would be used to encourage veterans to move to Florida, and promote the hiring of veterans.

To assist families of active-duty service members, the bill also waives the requirement for spouses and dependents to get a Florida driver’s license if they either get a job or enroll in a public school.

Scott spoke of his own experience when leaving the U.S. Navy in explaining his support of veterans and active duty service members.

“I remember when I got out of the Navy back in the early ’70s. It was not a good time to get out of the service in this country. … We’re going to make sure that is this is the most military-friendly state for active-duty members, but also for all the veterans,” Scott said after the signing ceremony at the National Guard Armory in Panama City.

While leaders described the law in patriotic terms, it also is meant to continue the military’s beneficial effect on Florida’s economy.

Florida’s military presence has a $73 billion annual economic impact, accounting for 758,000 jobs, and represents the third-largest piece of the state’s economy, following agriculture and tourism, officials said.

More than 1.5 million veterans live in Florida, including 61,000 active duty personnel, state officials said. The Florida National Guard has 12,000 active members.

According to the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, nearly a third of the veterans living in Florida are from the Vietnam era and 231,000 served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Florida’s nursing home-population includes nearly 114,000 World War II-era veterans and more than 178,000 veterans of the Korean conflict.

Andrew Sloan, a Georgia native who spent six years in the U.S. Air Force and has been lobbying lawmakers since September on behalf of student veterans, said the law will draw other veterans to Florida’s universities.

Because in-state tuition, covered by the federal GI Bill, is thousands of dollars cheaper than out-of-state rates, lawmakers hope the new waivers encourage veterans from outside of the state to apply to Florida schools.

“We served our nation, and we only ask for that which we earned, by virtue of our service, (to) be there when we get home,” said Sloan, who is now a political science and German double-major attending Florida State University.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.

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