National Guard suffers defeat in budget fight

Times Staff Writer

While they have been beating back wildfires across the state and fighting wars on two fronts overseas, the citizen soldiers of the California National Guard have also been waging a battle in the Legislature -- and losing.

For the second year in a row, state lawmakers have rebuffed the Guard’s effort to win state money to help cover the cost of college for its members. State military officials say their only hope now is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will prevail upon Democratic legislators to include money for tuition assistance in the budget that is 49 days overdue and more than $15 billion in the red.

California is the only state that gives no educational benefit to National Guard members.

Schwarzenegger has called the lack of benefits “unconscionable” and proposed spending $3.3 million this year and next to help Guard members with tuition assistance. That is enough to cover most tuition and fees at community colleges or a state university for about 2,000 people.


Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly agreed. But Democrats in the Senate scuttled a bill that would have created the program and then stripped the $3.3 million from a Democratic budget plan.

Senators said the program’s cost doomed it and hundreds of other spending proposals as the state wrestles with a $15.2-billion budget gap.

“Given the budget crisis, all bills that had a substantial amount of money” attached did not pass, said Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena).

But some senators had concerns beyond the fiscal, said Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden), who chairs the subcommittee that oversees National Guard funding.

He said that given how the Bush administration has been using the National Guard to augment troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, the federal government -- not the state -- should pay for expanded Guard benefits.

“I think the federalization of the Guard is putting on an undue toll,” Machado said, “and I think in that case, the federal government has a greater responsibility for providing incentives for recruitment and retention.”


People who join the California National Army or Air Guard typically hold full-time jobs and do military training on weekends.

They act as the state’s backup force in emergencies such as natural disasters and other crises.

Last month, more than 1,000 Guard members and 17 Guard helicopters helped state and local firefighters battle wildfires. California’s 21,000 Guard members have also served 27,000 deployments overseas since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some members have been deployed several times.

California’s Guard membership is the smallest per capita of any state and should be at least 25,000, Guard officials say.

The Legislature’s reluctance to boost National Guard benefits is penny-wise but pound-foolish, they argue, because the federal government pays almost all of the state Guard’s payroll, training and equipment costs.

The officials figure that an additional 8,000 members would draw a $400-million federal investment. But they say the lack of educational benefits hinders their ability to recruit and retain people.


“We’re losing good-quality people to other states,” said Maj. Thomas Keegan, a helicopter pilot who is also the legislative liaison for the California National Guard. “California uses its National Guard more than any other state in the nation, and does less for it than any other state.”

Guard officials offered as an example Tech. Sgt. Maria Tubergen of Sacramento, who was named Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year in February by the California Air National Guard for her work with the 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Field near San Jose.

Tubergen was honored by her supervisors for her community service, including volunteer work at an orphanage in Africa during a 2007 deployment, and for her handling of personnel issues for her squadron.

Tubergen, 26, moved to California three years ago and joined the Guard. She would like to remain in California and study to become a military flight nurse.

But she has used most of her federal GI Bill educational benefits, and staying in California does not make financial sense.

So she is applying to schools in Florida, Arizona, Washington and Michigan, because those states pay at least some college tuition for people willing to join their National Guard, which she would do.


“There are other states that will pay my full cost,” Tubergen said.

In her native Michigan, she said, the Michigan Air National Guard paid more than half of her cost to earn a biology degree at Western Michigan University.

“It would be almost silly of me to take on debt,” Tubergen said.




Other states’ aid

All states except California offer their National Guard members education benefits. Here are some examples:

Connecticut: Tuition is waived at state colleges

Delaware: 100% tuition reimbursement at state colleges

Michigan: Tuition is reimbursed up to $2,000 a year

Virginia: Up to $6,000 a year for tuition

Washington: Interest-free loan is forgiven upon completion of service


Source: California National Guard