AUGUSTA – A bipartisan effort to provide National Guard members with tuition waivers at public colleges and to expand other veterans services devolved Wednesday into partisan fight over process and how to pay for the programs.

Lawmakers are currently considering a package of recommendations from a 2015 commission that aimed to improve the services and outreach to Maine’s large population of veterans. The bills received unanimous endorsement from a legislative committee.

At the same time, a bill to allow members of the Maine National Guard to attend public colleges tuition-free passed both chambers of the Legislature but has been stalled amid discussions about how to fund it. While the University of Maine System has said it could cover the costs for a year with unexpended funds, some lawmakers have been pushing for a longer-term funding source.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat and Marine Corps veteran, proposed paying for the tuition waiver bill with revenues generated from the state’s liquor contract. Golden’s proposal would have rolled the tuition waiver into one of the larger bills adding several new positions within the Bureau of Veterans to help with outreach to veterans, including those who are homeless.

“We have before us a solution to do right by our veterans and by our National Guard members,” Golden, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in a statement. “We can support assistance for National Guard members pursuing higher education and support our veterans today. It can’t wait.”

But Republican lawmakers objected to diverting money from the liquor revenue fund – which is largely devoted to helping pay down state debts to hospitals – when the University of Maine System said it can cover the initial year’s costs. Republicans also criticized members of the Democratic caucus for proposing a 15-page amendment on the House floor and opposing an effort to send the amendment back to committee for review.

As a result, lawmakers deadlocked Wednesday on issues that had received unanimous support.

The proposal was eventually tabled in order to allow for additional negotiations, but not before tempers flared during debate that lasted more than an hour. Democrats questioned why Republicans would not support funding the veterans programs with a predictable, steady revenue source while Republicans accused Democrats of election-year politicking on veterans issues in order to tap into the liquor revenues.

Rep. Bradlee Farrin, R-Norridgewock, former command chief master sergeant for the Maine Air National Guard, said each of the veteran’s proposals should “stand on their own legs” and be voted on separately. Farrin, who has been pushing for months to finalize the tuition waiver program, said lawmakers should allow the university system to cover the costs out of their unexpended funds during the first year in order to gauge interest in the program.

“It’s plain-and-simple politics and wrapping themselves in the flag to get this done,” Farrin said afterward.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, a Newport Republican who is a major in the Maine Air National Guard, pointed out that no one on his side of the aisle knew about the amendment or the proposed funding source until this week.

“Process matters, folks,” Fredette said. “It’s an issue about talking to each other across the aisle so that we are not trying to one-up one another.”

But Democrats countered that the proposal will provide a long-term funding source for a tuition waiver program that state’s adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Douglas Farnham, urged lawmakers to support during a speech just two week earlier.

Golden said that all of the policy proposals contained in his amendment are exactly same as the versions that passed out of the legislative committees with unanimous support.

“We are not changing anything,” Golden said. “We are just providing a way to fund this.”


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