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Trump calls out N.Y. Dems for vote on expansion of military benefits

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President Donald Trump criticized New York Democrats on Twitter, asserting they blocked a bill expanding access to college tuition for military families after they approved aid for “illegal immigrants.”

“In New York State, Democrats blocked a Bill expanding College Tuition for Gold Star families after approving aid for illegal immigrants,” Trump wrote. “No wonder so many people are leaving N.Y. Very Sad!”

The vote by Democrats in the New York State Legislature to delay or deny expanded college benefits for families of servicemembers, as described in a Republican-sponsored bill, became national news. Five days after Trump’s tweet, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, took executive action to expand financial aid for certain military families, as Republicans had proposed. We decided to investigate this claim from the president.

Background

The bill in question, A.2991, would expand an existing financial aid program for dependent survivors of military members who died, were severely and permanently disabled, or were classified as missing in action while in combat or preparing for combat. The military enhanced recognition, incentive and tribute scholarship program, or MERIT, already provides tuition and other expenses at approved colleges in New York state for these dependents, or for military members who became severely and permanent disabled themselves during combat or in training for combat.

Covered expenses include tuition for four years, or for five years for selected five-year programs, equal to in-state State University of New York tuition, or the student’s actual tuition, whichever is less. Allowances for room and board, transportation, and books are also included. In 2018-19, the benefit is $24,250 for students living on campus, and $15,750 for students who commute to school, according to the Higher Education Services Corporation. Additional eligibility requirements apply, such as being enrolled as a full-time student and being in good academic standing. In 2018, an estimated 111 students received this award, totaling $1.8 million, according to Cuomo.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, R-Batavia, would have expanded eligibility for the program beyond combat involvement to include spouses, children, and financial dependents of service members who died or were severely disabled or were classified as missing in action while carrying out their military duties.  

Hawley’s proposal is not new for the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee. The bill has been introduced for many years, and it has never made it out of committee, which, like the Assembly, is controlled by Democrats. The bill’s legislative history indicates that it has been around since 2006, and was “held for consideration” in committee in 2010, 2012 and 2014, which effectively ended any progress it would have toward becoming law. On April 9, a motion to hold the bill for consideration was supported by 15 Democrats, and opposed by four Democrats and seven Republicans.    

Assembly Democrats said they supported the original Merit Scholarship program by voting in favor of the budget on April 1. The expansion, they said, came up for a vote after the budget was approved.

“Discussing budget items outside of the budget is fiscally irresponsible and is generally only done for political gamesmanship,” said Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan.

The Merit Scholarship program is included in the budget and has been around since 2003, and Assembly Democrats have fully funded the program for more than 15 years, Glick said.  

Defining ‘Gold Star’ 

Trump referred to “Gold Star families,” a phrase that state lawmakers also used in describing this bill. The Department of Defense does not have an official definition for “Gold Star families,” said department spokesperson Jessica Maxwell.

The department, however, distributes Gold Star lapel buttons to family members under criteria outlined in a December 2016 memo, Maxwell said. The criteria is different during different time periods, though in all cases is limited to families of service members who have lost their lives. The criteria include but are not limited to service members engaged in hostilities, those who died during terrorist attacks, or while they were engaged in peacekeeping operations. It’s possible those eligible for a Gold Star lapel button could also be affected by this expansion, though it’s certain other military families will as well.

The second part of Trump’s statement is accurate, according to PolitiFact New York’s check on a similar claim. Democrats lead both houses of the State Legislature, and they included $27 million for college tuition assistance to undocumented students in the budget finalized on April 1, funding the Jose Peralta Dream Act.  

Our ruling

Trump tweeted that Democrats blocked a bill expanding college tuition for Gold Star families after approving aid for illegal immigrants.

On April 9, Democrats in the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee voted 15-11 in favor of holding a bill to expand benefits for certain military families for consideration, as the committee had done several times before, effectively ending its progression to becoming law.

Trump said “Gold Star families,” though there is no official federal definition, according to the Department of Defense.

Democrats also approved college tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants during the current legislative session and as part of the budget, which was approved April 1.

We rate Trump’s statement True.

 





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