A new bill filed in the House this week would extend education benefits for Florida National Guard members to those taking online courses at schools outside the state.
Rep. Dan Daley of Coral Springs on Tuesday filed HB 999, which would revise eligibility for the state’s Education Dollars for Duty (EDD) program, a major benefit and recruitment tool that covers tuition and fees for eligible troops.
The program currently only pays for National Guard members to enroll in in-person and online degree programs provided by colleges, universities, and technical schools within the state.
Daley’s bill would change that by extending coverage to non-Florida online degree programs — up to the highest tuition rate for Florida online schooling.
“Florida National Guard soldiers and airmen work hard, dedicate their lives to serving our great state,” Daley said in a statement. “When we have the opportunity, we must find ways to give back to these men and women — this legislation does just that.”
Existing EDD restrictions would still apply. Eligible students must be at least 17 and active members in good standing with the Florida National Guard. To remain in the program, they must maintain continuous, satisfactory participation in the National Guard for the school term.
EDD also does not cover education costs beyond a single master’s degree.
This year, the program ran into budgetary issues amid the busiest activation period for National Guard troops since World War II. In April, EDD stopped approving the applications of service members. Funding ran out.
Some 250 guard members were denied benefits, the Florida National Guard said. They continued to go uncovered until the new budget kicked in on July 1.
The EDD program runs on a recurring $3.1 million annual appropriation. In 2020 and 2021, it received an additional $1 million nonrecurring appropriation, raising the program’s total budget to $4.1 million. Service members still fully drained the funds this year and last.
Volusia County Sen. Tom Wright, chair of the Committee on Military and Veteran Affairs, Space and Domestic Security, told Florida Politics in July that demand for the program had outgrown supply.
“The ($4.1 million) has always been enough money,” he said. “But I think what’s happening is probably the guardsmen and women are probably, through word-of-mouth, discovering this program. And so, we ran about $600,000 short.”
EDD also paused benefits because of funding shortages during fiscal 2016-17 under former Gov. Rick Scott.
Early this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested increasing EDD funding to $5.1 yearly as part of a state budget proposal that includes more than $100 million to support the National Guard.
Most of that, about $85 million, would cover expansion to a National Guard readiness center in Miramar and construction of three additional armories in Homestead, Gainesville and Malabar.
But the proposed budget also includes $3.5 million to reestablish the Florida State Guard, a paramilitary force that would answer solely to the Governor.
If passed, Florida would become the 23rd state with a federally recognized state guard.
Florida Politics reporter Jason Delgado contributed to this story.