Monthly Column From Assemblyman Jake Ashby

On April 9, the Assembly Committee on Higher Education voted on bill A.2991, which aims to “provide free tuition expenses for SUNY or CUNY to surviving dependent family members of New York State military personnel who have died while performing official military duties.” This proposed legislation is different than the Post 9/11 GI Bill, and the current Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute (MERIT) Scholarship for Gold Star families, which the state funds. The post 9/11 GI Bill is capped but allows the servicemember to pass the benefit to family. Should it be passed on to alternative recipients (more than one child), it’s unlikely that it would fully cover all their expenses. The MERIT scholarship for Gold Star Families only recognizes those killed in combat or those training to deploy into combat.

This is a distinguishing feature and has become a point of contention among those following the issue. The proposed legislation in A.2991 would broaden the umbrella, covering any service member who died while performing official military duties. Aircraft and vehicle crashes, airborne operations gone bad, and field training accidents would all be qualifying events. Those who said this bill was duplicative were not recognizing its intent, nor were they adequately considering the daily sacrifices our service families make on our behalf.

This bill has a lengthy history. It was first introduced by Assemblyman Steve Hawley (R,C,I-Batavia) in 2008 and has been perpetually held in the Higher Education Committee. On April 9, I voted against the hold in committee and explained the differences in legislation/policy noted above. I also inquired as to why this legislation has been held in committee for so long and not included in the budget. If it was truly a budgetary issue, I’d like to think my colleagues would’ve recognized fiscal obstacles when it was first introduced in 2008.

Days after the vote in committee, there was a substantial public outcry. The governor subsequently directed the NYS Higher Education Services Corporation to expand the eligibility criteria in the MERIT Scholarship to those who died or were permanently disabled while serving in active duty, regardless of their location. While I applaud the governor for acting, I do not believe it is enough. A directive may not survive funding shortfalls or policy changes. In order to protect the families of fallen service members, we must act legislatively. Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Kings) has offered to carry the legislation, assuring greater support from the Majority. I am grateful for Assemblyman Ortiz’s leadership and I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle push for the passage of this legislation.

I’ve heard this issue called ‘nothing more than a PR victory for the Assembly Minority.’ A callous remark most likely made from ignorance, but typical of a mindset which overlooks the depth of sacrifice made by few to sustain freedom for many. Is there a more salient theme we should remember as Americans? I do not believe there is. A travesty in legislative priorities has been uncovered, and we saw another example of our service families being stepped over for nearly a decade. After 17 years and 7 months (and counting) of sustained war, I know the elected officials of New York can come to a better conclusion than to “hold” this legislation amid a $175 billion state budget, or to rely on the governor’s ill-timed gestures.

We are called to demonstrate support for those serving our nation – whether they’re in a combat zone or not. This legislation is one way we can honor our commitment to the families of those who serve after a catastrophic event, and I will continue to support its passage.