ALBANY — A bill that would have provided free college tuition and room and board to additional Gold Star children — dependents of troops who died while serving — has been held over in the state Assembly.
A similar benefit, known as the Merit Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute, or MERIT, scholarship, has provided tuition and room and board since 2003 at State University of New York and City University of New York schools for children of troops who died in a combat zone. The new legislation would expand the benefit to include dependents of troops who were killed or seriously disabled in any way while on duty.
The Assembly bill was being considered by the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee.
Alfred Hooton, of Athens, said he strongly supports the bill.
“My father was a veteran who died from Agent Orange coming out of Vietnam. It would have been nice for somebody to take care of his children,” Hooton said.
His wife, Debbie Hooton, agreed.
“My dad is also a vet. He was in the Korean War,” Debbie Hooton said. “We had to pay for our own college, and it was a bit of a struggle.”
Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-107, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors. He voted against the measure that would hold the bill and prevent it from moving out of committee to come for a vote on the Assembly floor. The vote to hold the bill was passed 15-11.
“Our service men and women, their families, especially the children, sacrifice their time together every day so we can have a safe, secure and free nation,” Ashby said. “It is especially heartbreaking and financially difficult when one of our military men and women die as a result of serving their country. The intent of this legislation is for New York to step up and say thank you by helping to take care of the children’s future.”
Ashby said the bill received bipartisan support from “rank and file legislators.”
Cmdr. Gary Flaherty, director of veterans services for Columbia County, was disappointed with the Assembly committee’s decision. He said a similar benefit goes to National Guard members.
“We give this to the National Guard for a four-year degree at a SUNY or CUNY program, but a child whose father or mother was killed, this is one of the least things we could do,” Flaherty said.
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-66, in New York City, chairs the Higher Education Committee and voted to hold the bill. She said the Assembly has funded the MERIT scholarship since 2003, and the proposed bill would extend the benefit to families of troops killed in any way while serving. She said she is concerned about cost and adopting a bill after the state budget was finalized at the beginning of April.
“It is widely known that the New York state budget is passed on April 1, and much of the beginning of the legislative session is focused on ensuring that New York is fiscally responsible by looking at spending and securing revenue for it,” Glick said in a statement. “Every Assemblymember is aware of this process and knows how important it is to discuss budget issues during the budget, and not in a post-budget committee meeting. New Yorkers deserve to ensure their programs are funded with revenue. Discussing budget items outside of the budget is fiscally irresponsible and is generally only done for political gamesmanship.”
Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, said the committee’s decision was “a disgrace.”
“I am simply disgusted,” Tague said. “We have legislation here that would help provide college to the children of some of our fallen heroes, and Democrats move to block it?”
Robert Hanover, of Hudson, sees both sides of the issue.
“I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I want to see them get the benefit, but on the other hand, who is going to pay for it?” Hanover said.
State Sen. George Amedore Jr., R-46, opposed the committee’s decision, saying a similar benefit was provided to “illegal immigrants” in the state budget a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s shameful to see what Democratic one-party rule has led to in Albany: prioritizing illegal immigrants over our Gold Star families and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our nation,” Amedore said.
Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106, is not on the Higher Education Committee, but said she voted in favor of the original MERIT scholarships in the state budget, which provided $2.7 million in funding.
“I have spoken with my colleagues about [the bill], which would expand MERIT scholarships beyond the traditional definition of Gold Star families, and while I believe this legislation is well-intended, some unanswered questions remain before it is ready to become law,” Barrett said.
Among the issues Barrett wants clarified is the number of additional students who would be eligible for the scholarhsip and the fiscal impact on the state.