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Gold Star

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivers remarks during a Gold Star Tuition event in New York.

A program that helps families of military service members killed in combat pay for college will be expanded after all, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday. 

Cuomo directed the state Higher Education Services Corporation to extend the Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute scholarship to families of service members killed or disabled while on active duty. Prior to the executive action, the program was available to spouses and children of those killed or disabled in combat or training for combat operations. 

The expansion will be funded within the 2019-20 state budget, Cuomo noted. 

"We're not going to wait until next April to make sure we honor our obligation," he said at a press conference in New York City. "This is truly the least that we can do." 

The announcement was in response to a backlash after state Assembly Democrats rejected a bill in committee to expand the MERIT scholarship. Democrats explained that due to the fiscal impact it would need to be dealt with during the next budget process in 2020. Cuomo, a spokesperson said Wednesday, disagreed with the Assembly's action. 

Republicans who support the bill criticized the decision and accused Democrats of prioritizing undocumented immigrants over Gold Star families. The 2019-20 state budget included $27 million to implement the Dream Act, a new law that allows immigrant students to seek state tuition aid for college. 

Some GOP state lawmakers began circulating a petition this week to build support for legislation to expand the Gold Star scholarship program. 

Students awarded the MERIT scholarship, according to the Higher Education Services Corporation's website, are eligible to receive up to $24,250 if they live on campus or $15,750 if they commute during the 2018-19 academic year. 

Through the MERIT scholarship, tuition is covered at an amount equal to the actual tuition or the SUNY in-state tuition rate, whichever is less. The program also covers additional education-related costs, such as books and transportation, and a room and board allowance. 

Cuomo's office said the scholarship was awarded to 111 students at a cost of $1.8 million in 2018. Since the scholarship was created in 2003, it has been awarded to 387 spouses or dependents of military service members killed in action. 

Mecca Nelson, whose husband Mario was killed in Iraq in 2006, emphasized the importance of supporting Gold Star families. Many military spouses and families, she said, struggle to make ends meet after the loss of a loved one. 

"I can't even imagine the frustration and challenge of paying for college tuition on top of that. It would seem impossible," she said. 

Cuomo's executive action to expand the MERIT scholarship, Nelson continued, is "life-changing for families like mine." 

Cuomo's order requires the state Higher Education Services Corporation to expand the program immediately. 

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb called the governor's action a victory for veterans. He noted that the Assembly Republicans have pushing for the expansion since 2006. 

"It took far too long for New York Democrats to do the right thing; but what matters most is that the MERIT scholarship program will finally increase, and the children of deceased and disabled veterans will receive the benefits they truly deserve," Kolb, R-Canandaigua, said. 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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