A scholarship program for public colleges and universities offered to New York families whose loved ones are killed while on active military combat duty is expanding its eligibility qualifications. It comes following political backlash over stalled bills to provide free college tuitions to Gold Star families, while millions of dollars were included in the budget for similar tuitions for families of those who entered the US illegally.
On Wednesday, Governor Cuomo ordered the Higher Education Services Corporation to broaden eligibility for the state's Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute Scholarship, or MERIT. The scholarship previously was available only to families whose loved ones were killed while on active duty in combat zones. The scholarship will now be available to families of military who were killed while on duty under any circumstances, permanently disabled or went missing in action.
"It doesn't require any additional funding, certainly not this year. It's expanding the access and the eligibility for these families to apply and go get a pool of fuinding that is already set aside in the state budget," said State Senator Robert Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican representing the 62nd Senate District.
Governor Cuomo explained in a prepared written statement: "Military service is more than just the active military member - I believe the entire family is in service, and we will honor that sacrifice and respect that service not just in words, not just with symbols, but with deeds. That is why New York is taking immediate action to extend benefits to all those lost or disabled while on active duty, period. We can never replace the loved one lost, but we can lessen the hardship and make it a little easier to deal with the loss, and it is our honor, our obligation and our pleasure to do just that. We hope this gesture helps bring some comfort, peace, relief and justice to those grieving their loss."
Ortt says he often times disagrees with the governor on numerous issues but applauds his decision to take this action. At the same time, he suggested to WBFO these actions come following noticeable public backlash over a budgetary decision to include millions of dollars in scholarship money for families of undocumented immigrants. While that money was approved, bills seeking similar financial assistance - including one he was sponsoring in the Senate - were left to stall in committee.
"After days and a a weekend of really bad press, the governor made his announcement today," Ortt said. "But it's not too late to do the right thing. This is absolutely the right thing."
Another bill which stalled in Albany was one sponsored by Assemblyman Steven Hawley, a Batavia Republican representing the 139th District. He spoke with WBFO prior to the governor's announcement, when a new bill sponsored by Senate Democrat John Brooks of Massapequa was pending. That bill would have provided free tuitions to Gold Star families, beginning April 1, 2020. Governor Cuomo vowed to sign it but later announced his own order.
Hawley's bill, meanwhile, never made it out of committee. WBFO asked him if he perhaps sensed a hijacking of the issue. He wouldn't suggest that, stating that he is simply satisfied that the governor and leadership in Albany was finally showing more respect for Gold Star families.
"It's one of the things I fought for in all 13 of my years in the Assembly," Hawley said. "Regardless of why it has not passed, my bill, we'll let others talk about that. In the end, we've been very successful finally, after 11 years in having this come to the floor, in doing the right thing."