In state government, there are many causes worth fighting for. But none are more gratifying than when the public’s interests win out over political forces.
Last week, we witnessed a tremendous victory for veterans across New York with a measure to expand scholarships at SUNY and CUNY schools for the families of deceased or disabled military personnel. On Wednesday, Gov. Cuomo announced that the Higher Education Services Corporation will finally broaden the Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute (MERIT) Scholarship program, which provides the costs of tuition, room and board, and fees to eligible students.
The state’s existing MERIT program applied only to the families of veterans who lost their lives or became disabled in a combat situation or while training for a related military operation. Assembly Republicans have long wanted this program to expand, and since 2006 have offered legislation that would extend the same financial benefits to families of any veteran killed or disabled while performing their official duties.
Wednesday’s announcement brought to a conclusion a long and worthy campaign in the Legislature. For Gold Star families and all veterans, it brought even more.
PASSIONATE PUBLIC OUTCRY GETS RESULTS
The governor made the correct call by expanding the MERIT program. But as they say, “timing is everything,” and the timing of his announcement was not coincidental. It came only after massive public outcry over a terrible vote by liberals in the Assembly, and it demonstrated the powerful voices of veterans around the state.
Previously, the MERIT expansion bill (A.2991, Hawley) was rejected in the Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education, essentially ending any hopes of its passage this year. The chair of the committee called the bill “an entitlement.” The 15 Democrats who opposed the bill justified their vote by saying it could not be considered outside the budget, due to the financial implications. Both were offensive, hollow arguments.
In addition, the same Democrats who voted against expanding scholarships for Gold Star families had just approved $27 million in the state budget to fund tuition assistance for the children of illegal immigrants.
The public reaction to Albany’s misplaced priorities was swift, decisive and widespread. The decision to reject expansion of the MERIT program went from a routine committee vote to a national embarrassment, almost overnight. I heard from countless constituents who expressed disgust, dismay and demanded action. With their voices loud and united, they got exactly what they asked for.
A MOST FITTING RESULT FOR A MOST DESERVING GROUP
As the father, son, brother and uncle of U.S. military veterans, I know that the Gold Star bill was a personal priority for many New Yorkers. I commend Assemblyman Steve Hawley, who has sponsored the bill for more than a decade, for his persistent commitment to our military heroes. I’m extremely proud of my colleagues in the Assembly Republican Conference for their unwavering commitment to achieving results despite the petty political obstruction experienced too frequently at the Capitol.
At the end of the day, this is an incredible victory for the people who deserve it most. The debt owed to our fallen and disabled military heroes can never properly be repaid. But this week, they achieved a small measure of financial help, and a long overdue measure of respect.
What do you think? I want to hear from you. Send me your feedback, suggestions and ideas regarding this or any other issue facing New York State. You can always contact my district office at 315-781-2030, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, find me by searching for Assemblyman Brian Kolb on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, represents the 131st District, which includes Ontario County and part of Seneca County.