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Scott signs "Florida G.I. Bill"

Gov. Rick Scott signed the first substantive bill of the session Monday, creating a program that will waive out-of-state tuition fees for military veterans.

The "Florida G.I. Bill" will also connect veterans to potential employers, and pump money into continuing education and industry certification programs for active service members.

Scott, who served in the Navy, said he hoped the legislation would make Florida "the most military-friendly state" in the nation.

The veterans proposal (HB 7015) won unanimous support in both chambers in March.

Lawmakers were particularly proud of the tuition waiver program, which is named in memory of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Under current law, veterans who are not Florida residents must pay out-of-state rates, which can be four times what residents pay.

The measure is expected to cost the state $11.7 million.

The new law also:

* Increases funding for the Educational Dollars for Duty program, which seeks to enhance the education level of Florida National Guard members.

* Creates Florida is for Veterans, Inc., a corporation tasked with promoting Florida to retired and recently separated service members.

* Encourages government entities to hire veterans, as well as current members of the reserves and the Florida National Guard, and the parents and spouses of service members who died in combat.

* Allows private businesses to create hiring practices that give preference to veterans and the spouses of disabled or deceased veterans.

* Helps healthcare professionals who received an honorable discharge to practice in Florida.

* Removes the one-year residency requirement so that veterans living in Florida can have immediate access to vacancies at state nursing homes.

* Provides $12.5 million in state funding for armories, and $7.5 million to acquire lands around three military installations: Naval Support Activity Panama City, Naval Station Mayport and MacDill Air Force Base.

One provision has been controversial: language encouraging military base commanders to work with the state education commissioner to create new charter schools.

Some educators are concerned that military commanders will be able to circumvent local school boards to establish their own semi-private schools.

Last year, the Hillsborough County School Board challenged a charter school looking to open on MacDill Air Force Base. The school's governing board later withdrew its proposal.

At a bill signing ceremony at the National Guard Armory in Panama City, military officials had high praise for the legislation.

"The support our military has received from our elected leaders in Florida is at the highest level in my memory," said Major Gen. Emmett R. Titshaw, Jr., of the Florida National Guard.