Some veterans advocates are pushing back against plans to use GI Bill benefits to pay for would-be entrepreneurs' small-business grants, arguing the move confuses the purpose of the education program.
Last month, the Senate Small Business Committee advanced a measure to create a three-year pilot program allowing 250 veterans to use their GI Bill funds as a business start-up grant, rather than for college tuition.
The concept has been floated on Capitol Hill several times since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was launched in 2009. But it has grown in popularity in recent months, and this week was included in presidential hopeful Jeb Bush's veterans reform platform.
In a statement, bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., called the idea a "common sense" move to give veterans "more flexibility and choice in their benefits to achieve their goals."
The legislation is supported by several veterans groups, including the National Guard Association of the United States, the American Legion, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which have praised it as another way to ease troops' transitions from military to civilian life.
But Student Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have come out as vocal opponents of the idea, calling it a potentially problematic erosion of a clearly defined program.
"The GI Bill is an education benefit," said Will Hubbard, SVA's vice president of government affairs. "This is like using a VA home loan program to pay for medical bills instead of a mortgage. That's not what this benefit was intended for."
In the last six years, VA has paid out nearly $54 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to 1.4 million veterans and dependents. The program has proved wildly successful but also has drawn attention because of its cost.
Hubbard said he supports expanding small-business programs for veterans, but not by equating them to college degrees or pulling money from the education benefit.
Ryan Gallucci, deputy director of the VFW's National Veterans Service, said preparing veterans to run a business and providing them grant support should be complementary efforts, and they should not have to choose one over the other.
"Plans like these worry us about the future viability of this benefit," he said. "Our concern is that those serving in uniform may not be able to use (the GI Bill) in its current form if we keep chipping away at it."
If the pilot program is enacted, participants would be required to complete a to-be-determined entrepreneurial training and business plan development course before receiving capital grants. That funding could total more than $60,000, depending on a veteran's place of residence and existing GI Bill eligibility.
The measure still must pass a full Senate vote and gain approval from the House before it can become law, and no timeline for either has been established. Still, critics worry that the idea already has encouraged lawmakers to start looking at GI Bill benefits as an area ripe for changes.
"We don't want people to see (the GI Bill) as a pot of money that can be used for all sorts of things," Hubbard said.