By JORDAN SHAPIRO
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A plan being considered in the Missouri House aims to use state funds to help members of the Missouri National Guard who would lose their federal tuition assistance as a result of automatic federal spending cuts.
The spending cuts, which total $85 billion, took effect March 1 and have caused the military to cut back on tuition assistance The U.S. Army has announced it would be suspending all new requests for tuition aid, which would affect all students seeking to enroll in the summer semester. That could impact the 905 members of the Missouri Army National Guard who currently receive tuition aid from the federal government.
To help offset those cuts, some Missouri House members have proposed expanding the state budget to include additional state tuition assistance. The proposed emergency fund would use $1.5 million in state tax revenue for tuition aid during the fiscal year that starts July 1. Missouri already uses state resources to fund the tuition of 277 members of the Army National Guard, and the additional funding would allow students currently receiving federal help to join that program.
"We believe that tuition assistance for student soldiers and airman in the Missouri National Guard should have been one of the last budget items cut due to sequestration," said House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, a Navy veteran and former Defense Department employee.
Under the House plan, service members would qualify for tuition assistance if they are U.S. citizens or permanent residents and have been accepted to a Missouri public university. Students would then need to maintain a 2.5 GPA to remain eligible.
Service members are disqualified if they pursue degrees in divinity or theology or if they have already received bachelor's degrees. Missouri's aid is based on the cost of credit hours at the University of Missouri system.
One of the lawmakers involved in the House proposal personally knows how it helps. Rep. Jeff Grisamore, R-Lee's Summit, has two sons currently serving in the Missouri National Guard who used tuition aid and another who is going to be enrolling during the year. Grisamore said he is "hopeful" the federal government would restore the cuts.
In addition to the $1.5 million to help replace lost federal tuition assistance, the House Budget Committee's plan also includes an additional $1 million to shore up current state tuition aid and funding for veterans burials performed by the National Guard.
The Missouri National Guard performed military honors at more than 9,000 funerals in 2012 and is projected to do the same in 2013.
House members said the state's emergency funding would help cover some of the lost tuition costs from the federal budget cuts, but not all. Stream said the funding increase would still fall about $3 million short of current needs.
"This is just to get us through in hopes that the federal government will step up and restore the funds, but this is by no means the full answer. We by no means want to the let the federal government off the hook with their obligation to take care of our service men and women," said Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-St. Louis.
An effort is already under way in Congress to restore the tuition assistance cuts. On Thursday, two U.S. senators announced they intend to amend a federal budget stopgap measure to reinstate tuition aid for the armed services. The Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard have already suspended their assistance programs due to the automatic budget cuts.
Maj. Tammy Spicer, a spokeswoman for the Missouri National Guard, said if the budgetary situation improves, the Army has said it will re-examine the tuition aid cuts. The cuts also affect tuition help for active duty and reserve Army members. Spicer said there were other concerns over the cuts including the more than 1,000 Missouri National Guard technicians who may be in jeopardy if a furlough - which she called a "tool of last resort" - were to occur.
Service members will still be able to qualify for education aid under the G.I. Bill, which has been spared from the budget cuts so far.