Los Angeles Times
May 14, 2007
Only California doesn't provide college aid. Antiwar sentiment and budget woes are factors.
By Nancy Vogel, Times Staff Writer
SACRAMENTO Riding a surge of public support for the citizen soldiers fighting an unpopular war in Iraq, California lawmakers are scrambling to issue them special license plates, waive car registration fees, offer free parking at state parks, even cut the price of their fishing licenses.
Moving through the Legislature now, such measures would join laws passed in the last couple of years that allow the soldiers mostly National Guard members to postpone payments on mortgages, credit cards and property taxes and give them "preference points" for state civil service jobs.
The one thing they want most, though, is not available: state money for college. All it would take, Guard officials say, is $3 million a year, a negligible sum in the state's $130-billion proposed budget.
California is the only state that gives no such help to those who commit to National Guard duty. Year after year, bills to change that have died in the Legislature because lawmakers faced budget shortfalls or opposed the war in Iraq, among other reasons. One aid law did pass, four years ago, but it has yet to help anyone because it hasn't been funded.
State military officials say their surveys of Guard members show that help with education costs is the No. 1 thing that would encourage them to reenlist.
"It'd definitely be an incentive for me to stay in," said Lt. Walter Wade of Sacramento, who missed the birth of his son last year because he was in Kuwait. He is working long-distance on a master's degree in financial planning through the University of Nebraska.
He uses a federal program that gives National Guard members up to $4,500 a year for college, but it covers less than half of his education costs.
Forty-nine states offer National Guard members benefits such as free state university tuition and stipends of $500 a semester.
"It's the right thing to do," said Lt. Col. Ivan Denton, commander of recruiting and retention for the Indiana National Guard, whose state pays full tuition to state colleges for people who commit to serving several years.
Denton said he tells recruits: "The reason you're getting the money is because your state and nation so appreciate your service."
The message in California, which ranks dead last among states in National Guard participation per capita, is different.
Sgt. Yvette Benitez of Sacramento, who spent all of 2005 in Kosovo province, Serbia, with the California National Guard, said the absence of education aid "makes us think, well, they want us to deploy, they want us to serve any type of disaster the state of California has
but yet they don't want to help us with small things like education."
Unlike people who join the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force, those who join the National Guard typically hold civilian jobs and serve the military part time. The Bush administration has leaned heavily on the Guard to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2001, more than 15,000 members of the California Army and Air National Guard have been deployed.
State Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena) chairs the Senate Education Committee, which has scuttled attempts by the California Guard to get tuition assistance for members. College aid ought to be based on financial need, not on membership in a group, Scott said, and if the federal government deploys the Guard overseas, then it should give members the same educational benefits as enlisted men and women, who can get more than $1,000 a month for school.
"It's the federal government that's made the decision to go to war," Scott said.
Assemblyman Chuck Devore (R-Irvine), who retired last month from the Guard after 24 years, said the Legislature is out of touch with the military.
Only 13 of the state's 120 lawmakers have military experience, and Devore said that since the closure of many bases in recent decades, most Californians have no regular contact with the military.
And some lawmakers are reluctant to do anything that could be viewed as support for the war in Iraq, he said.
Pete Conaty, a retired military officer who lobbies for the nonprofit National Guard Assn. of California, said state military officials are part of the reason there is no education aid, because they are not comfortable asking for the Legislature's help.
"They are taught from Day One to avoid politics," Conaty said. But "they're
realizing they need to have incentives if they're to meet their recruiting and retention goals."
State Guard officials say $3 million a year for education would more than pay for itself. Soldiers would have to commit to as many as six more years of service, depending on how much aid they wanted for college. Guard officials figure $3 million would help them retain at least 1,000 soldiers.
It is the best tool, they say, to reverse a steep decline in California Guard enrollment, which has fallen from 18,000 in 1996 to 15,800 today.
That's a smaller force than the 16,800 fielded by Texas, even though Texas has 12 million fewer people.
Two years ago, in a change that recognized California's consistent lack of success in building its force, the federal government cut the number of Guard positions authorized for California from 19,300 to 15,800 and shifted the positions to other states.
"For $3 million a year five years ago, we could have kept that brigade-size element here in California," said Lt. Col. Michael N. Wells, deputy director of government affairs for the California Guard.
"It's not just the money, either. It's the equipment.
"The state is very reliant on the National Guard to have helicopters, to have engineers, to have some degree of medical capability, some degree of organizational capability to interface with the federal government and other states," Wells said.
"It provides things that they just don't have sitting on their shelves," he said.
Devore said he has to "constantly reeducate" his colleagues that the state underwrites less than 4% of the $1-billion-a-year cost of the California National Guard, whose payroll is almost completely funded by the federal government.
"That's a force of men and women that's capable of responding to floods, fire, earthquakes, etc.," Devore said. "It's like, guys, show them some love!"
California created a Guard education aid program in 2003. But the Legislature and governor failed to fund it until last year, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allocated $200,000, enough to give 100 Guard members $2,000 each for tuition in return for another year of service.
No one has been able to use the money, however, because the California Student Aid Commission hasn't finished writing regulations on how it may be spent. And the law that created the program expires in two months.
Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) is trying to extend the law.
"There's great pomp and ceremony about lowering the flag to half-mast
. But show me money," he said.
Schwarzenegger has $1.7 million for tuition aid for the Guard in his proposed 2007-08 budget. On Thursday, a Senate budget subcommittee rejected that request.
Subcommittee chairman Sen. Michael Machado (D-Linden), echoing the view that the federal government should do more, told Guard officials that the issue needs to be vetted by Scott's education committee.