COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Lawmakers hope to give South Carolina a boost in the next round of base closures with measures aimed at helping military families adjust when they move from another state and make the transition to civilian life.
A law Gov. Nikki Haley will sign in a ceremony this week encourages public colleges to award veterans course credit for their military training. That would allow South Carolina to check off another of the 10 issues the U.S. Department of Defense considers key for military families' quality of life. That leaves six issues still outstanding in a state that has long touted itself as military-friendly and relies on military spending.
State Sen. Tom Davis, whose district includes two military installations, said one of his top priorities is becoming "10 for 10" before the 2014 legislative session ends next summer.
"This is part of an effort to make sure South Carolina formally recognizes the sacrifices families have to make," said Davis, R-Beaufort, who represents the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort and Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot on Parris Island. "These are things that don't involve an expense but are a recognition that military families face unique situations when given orders to relocate."
Beyond being the right thing to do, Davis said, the laws will make South Carolina stronger in surviving the next round of base closures that could come by 2015.
"It will mean in the eyes of those who view South Carolina from afar, primarily Washington, that South Carolina cares about fair treatment of military personnel," said Bill Bethea, chairman of the state's Military Base Task Force, created to help maintain the state's military presence.
Last year, the panel issued a report showing the U.S. military pumps nearly $16 billion into South Carolina's economy and supports about 140,000 jobs, concentrated in Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia and Sumter. The state is home to eight military installations, 56,000 military retirees and 900 defense contractor firms, and lawmakers don't want to lose them.
But other states are also working to check off the 10 quality-of-life measures and South Carolina is behind compared to others across the South. The Defense Department's Web site USA4militaryfamilies.org gives North Carolina and Mississippi credit for five; Florida, Tennessee and Texas credit for six; and Louisiana and Virginia credit for seven. Georgia and Alabama get marks for four.
South Carolina could get to six with two proposals approved by the House this year and awaiting action in the Senate.
Those measures would allow veterans to immediately pay in-state tuition at public colleges — waiving the one-year residency requirement — and establish treatment courts in each county specifically for veterans charged with nonviolent crimes. The special courts connect veterans with resources available through the Veterans Administration, like addiction treatment and counseling.
In the last few weeks, Davis introduced measures that would accomplish all 10.
So far, the Defense Department's Web site gives South Carolina kudos for three issues. Those previously enacted laws increased protection for military personnel against predatory lending, improved absentee voting for military families, and made it easier for military spouses to transfer their professional licenses from other states.
The latter, signed into law last June, was also incorporated in the new "Military Service Occupation, Education and Credentialing Act," which Haley signed last Friday. It includes a preamble stating the Legislature's recognition of the difficulties faced by military service members and their spouses, as military orders often require them to move every two or three years.
For example, Bethea said, spouses who were registered nurses elsewhere previously faced "all sorts of delays" to work in South Carolina. The law provides a temporary, one-year license to bridge the gap while they do whatever is necessary for a South Carolina license.
The new part of the law requires all of the state's two-year and four-year public colleges to develop a policy for granting academic credit for military training by Jan. 1, and allows the state's licensing agency to apply training toward occupational licenses or certifications.
Such credits allow departing military personnel to quickly earn a state license in the trade the military trained them to do or, if they use the GI bill to go to college, receive credits that help them earn a degree faster, said Kevin Bruch, the Defense Department's Southeast liaison.
For example, he said, the military's emergency medical technicians often can't even get a state license after four to six years of service.
"Legislation like this helps service members have a lot easier transition to the civilian side," said Bruch, who retired from the Air Force after 30 years.
The list of 10 key issues, which has evolved since its creation seven years ago, is based on surveys distributed through the groups that help military members.
"In this day and age, with the number of deployments, if we don't take care of families, members will talk with their feet," Bruch said. "South Carolina is definitely a military-friendly state, but there's always more to do."