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Gov. urges state aid on tuition for Guard members

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Times Staff Writer

Calling it “unconscionable” that California offers no college tuition help to its National Guard members, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will push to include funding in the next state budget.

In the prepared text of a speech he is set to deliver today at the groundbreaking for a veterans home on the VA’s West Los Angeles campus, the governor says California must be prepared to assist the 27,000 active-duty soldiers and National Guard members returning from overseas. He includes a call to help them pay for college.

“This means planning for their return and making sure they have the services they need, including medical and mental health care, education, jobs and housing,” states the speech, which was obtained by The Times.

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Unlike people who join the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force or Coast Guard, those who enter the National Guard typically hold civilian jobs and serve in the military part time. They can be called to duty by the state or the federal government, and hundreds are serving full time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Enlisted men and women can get more than $1,000 a month from the federal government for education. A federal program gives National Guard members up to $4,500 a year in educational benefits.

But according to National Guard research, until last week California was the only state in the nation that didn’t offer its own educational benefits to Guard members.

On June 29, 100 National Guard members were told that after a year of service they would get $2,000 each to help pay off student loans. That program, which disburses money based in part on income, was created by the Legislature in 2003 but was not funded until last year.

Schwarzenegger’s call for college tuition assistance comes as he and the Legislature’s top leaders try to hammer out the state’s spending plan for the next fiscal year. The budget was due last week, but talks continue.

In the $130-billion budget proposal the governor unveiled in January, he included $1.7 million to help pay the tuition of people with a certain number of years’ service in the Guard. The Assembly included a similar amount in its version of the budget, but the money was stripped last week after give-and-take with Senate budget writers.

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Maj. Gen. William H. Wade, leader of the California National Guard, said tuition assistance for all Guard members, regardless of income, is one of his top goals. He said he welcomed Schwarzenegger’s interest.

“We have never, ever failed to respond to the call of our state and nation,” he said, “and this is a small benefit to give.”

Money to pay for college also would help turn around the state’s declining Guard enrollment, Wade said. California ranks last in the nation in terms of Guard participation per capita, and membership has declined from 18,000 in 1996 to 15,800 today.

Guard officials say states with growing Guard membership, including Florida and Missouri, have recently boosted tuition assistance. The officials estimate that $3 million in benefits would help them retain 1,000 soldiers in the California Army National Guard.

State Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) said he will circulate a letter among senators Monday urging Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders to include National Guard tuition assistance in the budget.

But some senators say any state help paying for college should be based on income.

“I would like to see them establish some kind of financial threshold,” said Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), who as chairman of the Senate Education Committee has scuttled Guard tuition assistance bills in the past.

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A spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said he is willing to discuss the issue but is sensitive to Scott’s concerns.

“There’s a difference between someone who’s poor and signs up for the National Guard and college and someone who has more resources,” said spokesman Andrew LaMar.

A financial test would put tuition assistance off limits to all but a few Guard members, Wade said, because of the money they earn for training part time.

“Quite frankly, we’ve tried for 10 years to get an educational benefit, not a loan repayment program,” he said. “Now is the time for folks to do the right thing. Everyone says they appreciate the Guard. Now is the time to show it.”

nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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