STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
Helping Vets Hit the Books
Military veterans can earn academic credit for skills they gained in the service and pay lower tuition rates in at least 25 states.
More than 800,000 veterans and their families are taking advantage of the U.S. government’s post-9/11 GI Bill to attend college, and the number is expected to rise, according to the Student Veterans of America, an organization that supports veterans seeking higher education. In general, benefits pay for 36 months of tuition at the resident rate, typically much lower than the non-resident rate. (In 2012-13, public four-year institutions charged residents an average of $8,655 in tuition and fees per year, while they charged non-residents $21,706.)
The requirement that students establish residency—often defined as living in the state for 12 months—before receiving resident rates is waived for veterans in 25 states, and similar legislation is pending in at least eight more.
States are also acknowledging the value of skills and training veterans acquire in the military. Groups such as the American Council on Education and the Center for Adult and Experiential Learning have developed guidelines on assigning academic credit to specific military-related skills. At least half the states have passed legislation to develop similar criteria, and bills are pending in another five states.
In Texas, a bill carried by Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D) created the College Credit for Heroes program to maximize college credit awarded to veterans and service members for their military experience. Administered by the Texas Workforce Commission, seven community colleges were selected in 2011 to help create standards for assessing military training that can be used by any college in Texas, with emphasis on allied health programs. In May of this year, the program was expanded to other professions and to six new partner schools.
—Michelle Camacho Liu
To War and Back
Veterans Day began as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, to commemorate the first anniversary of the end of World War I. President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name to Veterans Day in 1954 to recognize all those who served in any American war.
Military veterans in the United States in 2011
World War II veterans
(1941 – 1945)
Korean War veterans
(1950 – 1953)
(1961 – 1975)
Gulf War veterans
(1990 – present)
States with 1 million or more veterans: California, Florida and Texas
Veterans 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree vs. 28.5 percent of the general population
Veterans 25 and older with at least a high school diploma, vs. 86 percent of the general population
Average annual income of veterans, compared to the national average of $25,811
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011 American Community Survey, Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2010
Benefits for Vets
The GI Bill pays in-state tuition rates and fees directly to the institution the veteran attends. A monthly housing allowance and an annual book/supply stipend go directly to the student. Veterans attending private or foreign institutions are eligible for tuition benefits of up to $18,000 per academic year.
Showdown in Colorado
The September recall of two Democratic legislators in Colorado—Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron—rocked Democratic Party leaders and re-energized gun rights activists nationwide. Both lawmakers supported stronger gun laws, and both are the first legislators ever to be recalled in the state.
Many observers credit the upset to grassroots activism led by a 28-year-old Republican, Victor Head, his brother and a colleague, all three in the plumbing business in Pueblo, a city of roughly 107,000. Their efforts, in part, rallied 52,540 voters, or 1 percent of the state’s population, to oust the lawmakers. Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call told a newspaper he was surprised by the results, but thrilled that voters had stood up to “out of touch” lawmakers. The Colorado GOP is “energized, organized and ready to fight and win in 2014,” Call said.
The Colorado election reflects Americans’ increasingly polarized positions on guns as the number of mass shootings climbs. Since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting last December, nine states have tightened gun restrictions, while more than two dozen states have increased the rights of gun owners.
The new laws in Colorado expand background checks on gun sales and limit ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. Colorado was once solidly Republican, but an influx of Democrats in recent years has turned the state into a partisan battleground. Following the recall, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus promised that “Republicans are going to compete for every vote in Colorado, and tonight is only the beginning of our path to victory in 2014.”
Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio characterizes the recalls as “mostly symbolic wins” for the GOP. Democrats still maintain their majority in the Colorado Statehouse, Palacio says, and the stricter gun laws remain on the books. “I don’t think this is an omen of things to come, but rather a snapshot in time, much like a poll,” he adds.
Morse, who would have been term-limited out after the 2014 session, lost by a slim 343-vote margin in his Colorado Springs district, where voters are roughly 34 percent Democrat, 26 percent Republican and 40 percent unaffiliated or something else. In Pueblo, where Democrats account for 45 percent of voters, Giron’s defeat—by 12 percentage points—was more unexpected and demoralizing. Republican George Rivera won Giron’s seat, and Republican Bernie Herpin will succeed Morse.
The relatively small elections (turnout was 21 percent in Colorado Springs and 36 percent in Pueblo) attracted big money from those who saw it as a proxy battle between the nation’s gun-rights and gun-safety forces. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and other prominent figures contributed $3 million to Morse and Giron. In contrast, the pro-recall war chest was about $540,000, more than half of it donated by the National Rifle Association. Other groups that aren’t required to report contributions also may have pitched in.
The David-and-Goliath aspect of the race made victory all the sweeter for gun rights advocates. “The people of Colorado Springs and Pueblo sent a clear message to their elected officials that their primary job is to defend our rights and freedoms and that they are accountable to their constituents—not the dollars or social engineering agendas of anti-gun billionaires,” the NRA said in a prepared statement.
Some analysts say the recalls may cause moderate lawmakers in both parties to shy away from gun control measures out of fear of losing their seats. Others believe citizens’ groups will short-circuit lawmakers and use ballot initiatives to change gun laws.
The Democrats’ Palacio argues it’s unwise to draw broad conclusions from two small races. Morse was hurt by a court decision not to allow mail-in ballots and by a lack of early voting opportunities, Palacio says. In Pueblo, Palacio believes Giron failed to engage constituents early enough in the race. “What we saw in Pueblo was information coming almost solely from one side. There was a lot of confusion. Voters knew the recall was about gun rights, but that’s not good enough.” For example, Palacio says, many voters may be opposed to gun control in general, but supportive of new laws when they understand precisely what they do—such as require background checks to weed out buyers with records of violence.
Palacio says Giron could have “worked harder and earlier to make sure the [pro-gun] scare tactics and noise didn’t prevail with the public. The job of the state legislator is to make constituents understand their vote ... No lawmaker should have a bunker mentality.”
Common Core Cold Feet
The debate and the number of bills on the Common Core State Standards Initiative, set to launch in 2014, have heated up significantly this year. Grassroots groups on both sides of the issue have been active in several states, triggering a flurry of media attention. Lawmakers in 47 states have introduced 235 Common Core-related bills this year. At least 89 have been enacted in 36 states, addressing everything from funding to accountability to postponement of the plan.
Common Core, initiated in 2009 by the bipartisan National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, aims to keep American students globally competitive and college- or career-ready by the end of high school. Supporters hope to raise student achievement through uniform educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade, focusing on English and math competency.
Backers of the initiative say it gives educators the first nationally standardized blueprint of the skills and knowledge students need to be competitive in today’s global market. Adopting the Common Core Standards is voluntary, and the decision to participate usually has been left to state boards of education. These boards also usually administer the program, although Common Core affects a number of policy areas overseen by state legislatures, including tests, curricula and teacher evaluations.
Critics argue the plan gives the federal government too much control over local matters, may potentially invade students’ privacy and costs too much. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have voted not to participate in Common Core. Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin want more time to investigate concerns. And Minnesota adopted just the math standards.
A recent Gallup poll indicates the public doesn’t know much about the initiative; 62 percent of respondents said they had never heard of it. Still, most states are on schedule and preparing for Common Core. The program’s two groups developing the tests have released cost estimates for the exams, sample questions and technology requirements. Pilot exams are being conducted in a few states, and the final ones are set to roll out in the fall of 2014.
Where America’s Students Stand
The Harvard Kennedy School compared reading and math proficiency of 2011 high school graduating classes in more than 30 nations. It found:
- The United States ranked No. 17 in reading.
- Shanghai, China, was the top-performing city in both math and reading.
- In math, 32 percent of U.S. students were proficient, compared to 58 percent in Korea and 56 percent in Finland;
- The only U.S. states with math proficiency rates greater than 40 percent were Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota and Vermont.
REAL ID Update
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will soon announce the timeline for full enforcement of the REAL ID Act. The timeline is expected to delineate four to six stages of a gradual phase-in of enforcement. Full enforcement—when an ID not in compliance will be rejected for all federal purposes under the act—will not be reached for two to three years.
Currently, 20 to 21 states are in full compliance, but DHS is expected to grant a dozen more states an automatic extension if they have met most of the requirements. Other states still may apply for one; however, all extensions will expire on a set date, likely one year or less from the start of the enforcement process.
The 2005 federal act requires states to issue driver’s licenses and ID cards that meet certain standards in order for them to qualify as acceptable identification for certain federal purposes such as boarding commercial flights. The standards include what information must be presented, which documents may be used to prove lawful status, what data the identification card must contain, and other criteria concerning the card’s security.
Compliance costs, privacy and other federalism concerns resulted in 17 states enacting statutes voicing opposition to the law. Most recently, in early September, Alaska lawmakers reiterated their opposition to the federal mandate by enacting House Bill 69. It prohibits “state and municipal agencies from using assets to implement or aid in the implementation of the requirements of certain federal statutes” including, among other things, the REAL ID Act.
Tax Actions: A Mixed Bag
Early on, 2013 looked like it would be a big year for tax reform. Governors in several states spoke of bold tax cuts in their state-of-the-state addresses, and in March, 34 states and the District of Columbia reported to NCSL that tax reform measures were on their 2013 legislative calendars. As it turned out, the year was more of a mixed bag. Thirteen of the 34 states enacted tax reforms, but in many cases the adopted measures were significantly pared down from what was introduced. The reforms generally did one of three things: reduced income taxes, broadened the sales tax base or increased transportation funding.
Overall, seven states cut net taxes by more than 1 percent, five states increased them by more than 1 percent, and 36 states made no significant changes. Collectively, states cut taxes by $1.3 billion, a modest sum compared to past years and about 0.2 percent of the prior year’s collections. (Data for Georgia, Missouri, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C., were not available.)
Most of the cuts were to personal income taxes, and will start with FY 2014 revenue collections. The biggest decreases were in Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Maine and Wisconsin applied previously enacted rate cuts, and Iowa created several new credits. In addition, sales tax rates dropped in two states: Arizona will see a $900 million reduction because voters in November declined to extend a temporary rate increase, and the Kansas sales tax rate is going from 6.3 percent to 6.15 percent (although lawmakers stopped it from it from falling to the scheduled 5.7 percent).
Most increases came in the general sales tax category, where states are expected to show a net gain of $720 million. But just a few states account for most of the activity. Virginia and Maine increased general sales taxes—Virginia to the tune of nearly $1.3 billion—while Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and Ohio decided to tax a number of previously exempt services. Minnesota also raised personal income tax rates. Four states—Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont and Wyoming—raised gasoline taxes as part of broader transportation funding plans. And Virginia eliminated its excise tax on gas, but imposed the sales tax on it.