State lawmakers squabble over which party dropped veteran tuition bill

Staff writerMarch 6, 2014 

State lawmakers in Olympia all agree that veterans should automatically get in-state tuition at Washington colleges and universities.

What they can’t seem to agree on is who should get credit for the policy — a dispute that could prevent the legislation from passing this year.

The state House and state Senate each unanimously approved bills to let veterans and active duty military members receive in-state tuition without living in Washington for a year to establish residency.

Neither of the bills passed the opposing chamber, however. Instead, both got bottled up in committees, missing key deadlines to advance.

Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday the bill is a priority for him and “should be an easy one for legislators to come to an agreement on this session.”

“It really is unthinkable that we couldn’t figure out a way to give veterans this benefit,” Inslee said.

But some House Democrats wondered why they should take up the Senate’s version of the veteran-tuition legislation when they recently passed a Senate Republican’s version of a high-profile immigrant financial aid bill.

“I’m sure they think every bill that has a companion should be a Senate bill,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

The immigrant financial aid legislation, which Inslee signed into law earlier this session, would extend state financial aid to immigrant students who are in the country illegally.

House Democrats pushed that bill — often known as the Dream Act — for two years in a row, but ultimately it was a Senate version of the legislation called the Real Hope Act that became law.

Now lawmakers are trading blame over who dropped the ball on the veteran in-state tuition bill.

Sullivan said that Republican Sen. Barbara Bailey of Oak Harbor could have easily advanced the House version of the veteran tuition bill from the Senate Higher Education Committee that she chairs, but she chose not to.

Bailey was the sponsor of the Real Hope Act and also is the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill to give veterans in-state tuition without a waiting period.

“It doesn’t seem fair to give Barbara Bailey both bills,” said Rep. Zack Hudgins, a Tukwila Democrat who sponsored the House version of the Dream Act.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Senate majority coalition of which Bailey is a part of say the House Appropriations Committee should have advanced Bailey’s version of the veteran tuition legislation.

“It’s a great bill. People shouldn’t play politics with it,” said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, a Medina Democrat who leads a coalition of mostly Republicans.

Bailey said she wants her version of the veterans bill to pass partly because she’s been working hard on it for two years with military organizations in her district. Bailey’s district includes Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

“For me, I think I’ve earned the right to have this bill,” Bailey said Wednesday.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said part of the issue is that leaders of the Republican-dominated state Senate majority never said which of the tuition bills they wanted to claim as Senate bills.

“We said, ‘Look, there’s two related tuition bills. One is the Dream Act or Hope Act, the other one is the military one,” Chopp said. “We just said, ‘Take your pick,’ because normally you have one House and one Senate bill.”

“They never got back to us,” Chopp said.

Tom said no such arrangement was discussed or offered.

“There was no deal,” Tom said.

Mike Schindler, a Navy veteran and CEO of Operation Military Family, said it would be a shame for the legislation to fail this year because of a partisan dispute.

Schindler said veterans need the legislation because their federal GI Bill benefits cover only the cost of in-state tuition — not out-of-state tuition costs.

“What message does it send when you say, we’ll go ahead and give tuition assistance to children of illegal immigrants, but we won’t give in-state tuition to veterans who have served this country?” Schindler said.

“I would say our veterans lost out to immigrant children. That’s the ironic part of this,” Schindler said.

Chopp said lawmakers still have time to sort out which versions of bills to pass, and the bill isn’t dead yet.

“It’s still in play in terms of that,” Chopp said.

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