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Lawmakers Fight Over Free Tuition for National Guardsmen

AUGUSTA, Maine ― The Maine House is divided along party lines over how to fund a program that gives National Guard soldiers and airmen free tuition in the state’s higher education system.

Republicans say the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System can pay for their tuition out of the agency’s existing tax-supported budgets, and that the soldiers and airmen would be filling otherwise vacant seats. Democrats want to fund the program using $600,000 from surplus liquor revenues.

The House on Wednesday tabled the issue after a long and heated floor debate. Republicans accused Democrats of unfairly surprising them with their funding plan.

“I can smell a rotten apple from a long ways away,” said Jeffrey Timberlake, a Republican who owns an apple orchard in Turner. “In this bill is a rotten apple.”

Rep. Stephen Wood, a Republican from Greene, lashed out at Democrats. “To be honest with you, I am disgusted with the political gamesmanship this body has played with our veterans this year,” he said.
Members from both parties agree the program would boost the National Guard’s efforts to recruit and retain soldiers, but it’s hard to agree on a funding plan when lawmaker use the issue as a political weapon, said Rep. Diane, Russell, a Portland Democrat.

“We owe it to our veterans not to make this a campaign talking point,” she said.

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