Some thank-you gift: Maine National Guard soldiers would get free college tuition under a bipartisan bill unveiled this week – provided, of course, that taxpayers don’t actually have to pay for it.

It’s called “An Act To Increase Access to Postsecondary Education for Maine National Guard Members,” and make no mistake about it: No one deserves this piece of legislation more than the men and women who, as they have for generations, represent the best Maine has to offer.

But before we dislocate something while patting ourselves on the back for doing the right thing here, take note of this clause buried deep in the bill: “A state postsecondary education institution shall absorb the reduction in tuition revenues that results from providing (free tuition to eligible National Guard members). The institution may not request additional General Fund appropriations from the Legislature to offset the reduction in tuition.”

Translation: Rather than welcome National Guard soldiers and airmen with open arms into Maine’s public higher education system – complete with taxpayer-funded tuition waivers as a token of our admiration and appreciation for their service – the plan here is essentially to sneak them in the back door and force Maine’s already beleaguered public colleges to pick up the tab.

Which, when you think about it, is typical of modern-day America’s oft-professed “support” for our men and women in the military. From the scandal-ridden Veterans Administration to two recent wars that required precious little shared sacrifice beyond those who actually served or had loved ones in harm’s way, gratitude to the troops these days all too often comes without any messy dollar signs attached.

Flanked by 16 fellow lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport (himself a lieutenant colonel in the Maine Air National Guard) spoke nothing but the truth Wednesday when he called members of the Maine Guard “exactly the type of people we need and want here in Maine. We should be doing everything in our power to help them.”

Indeed we should. Starting with actually ponying up the money it costs to educate a student in any of the three institutions covered by the bill: the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy.

To which Fredette and the bill’s other co-sponsors seem to be responding, “Cost? What cost?”

“To have another body in there, a member of the Maine National Guard, does not cost that institution any money,” said Fredette, drawing on his experiences as a teacher of college courses over the years.

“They don’t have to hire another teacher, they don’t have to have more lights on, they don’t have to heat a room differently,” he said. “To me it’s just another body in the room that I’m teaching to.”

Hear that groaning? It’s Maine’s higher-education bean counters, long attacked from multiple fronts for not having their fiscal houses in order, now searching for an algorithm that accounts for students in camouflage earning associate or bachelor’s degrees while remaining financially invisible.

The problem with the “one more student doesn’t cost more” rationale isn’t just that it’s intellectually dishonest – even Fredette acknowledged that he’s spoken with the heads of the three institutions and “they have a different position on this in terms of funding.”

Equally troubling is that the bill’s proponents haven’t a clue about how many National Guard members would take advantage of the free offer. (The bill requires that all other educational benefits, such as the federal, post-911 GI Bill for soldiers and airmen who have served overseas, be exhausted before the state benefit kicks in.)

Fredette said the University of Maine System projected 50 to 200 takers at an estimated annual cost to the system of $1 million, but added that “may be a little bit of a guesstimate because we won’t know for sure.”

So what if the number turns out to be, say, 500 servicemen and women?

And what if, rather than one extra student per classroom, three or four show up and suddenly the maximum class size is exceeded and there’s a waiting list? Who gets bumped first, the student who paid from his or her own pocket or the soldier who paid nothing?

And what about all those non-classroom administrative costs: student ID, transcript requests, parking permits, to name but a few. Are those, as Fredette put it, not “costing anybody any real money” either?

The point here is not that this bill is a bad idea. In addition to being the right thing to do, it would keep smart, capable young men and women here in Maine rather than sending them to Massachusetts, New Hampshire and other states where National Guard soldiers already receive tuition benefits.

But saying they’re giving something to Maine’s guardsmen and women when in fact the lawmakers are passing the price on to the schools – and thus putting the real burden on the students, faculty and staff already there – perpetuates the paper-thin “we support our troops” myth that has dogged our military since the first troops invaded Afghanistan way back in 2001. If support doesn’t mean an occasional opening of taxpayer wallets, then what does it truly mean?

It means this bill could get messy if, as Democratic co-sponsor Rep. Mick Devlin predicted after the news conference, General Fund money to pay for the National Guard tuitions is eventually added to the mix. Imagine Gov. Paul LePage, whose office was at least briefed on the bill, vetoing it because Maine can’t afford any more handouts to … our sons and daughters in uniform?

Better, right now, to stop having it both ways, come up with a credible cost estimate and fund this mandate from the get-go. And in the process, send a clear signal to Maine’s National Guard members that their value to us is more than just rhetorical – it’s as real as the sweat on their faces as they go about the heavy lifting that 99 percent of the American population would just as soon leave to someone else.

Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, who retired in 2013 as command chief master sergeant for the Maine Air National Guard, knows better than most about the sacrifice inherent in military service. He’s co-sponsoring the bill, he said, because “it’s kind of time to put our money where our mouth is.”

Precisely.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]