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Bill would expand benefits for families of fallen responders

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Bill would expand benefits for families of fallen responders

Allyson Harris, daughter of Joe Harris, a Sandoval County Sheriff’s deputy killed in the line of duty, is optimistic about House Bill 55 passing. It would pay for her to attend college for six years, as well as room and board.

Allyson Harris is a typical college freshman who works at a restaurant to supplement her income and pay for some of her tuition and books.

Allyson said finances were a huge part of the reason she and her mom Tonia Harris decided on Colorado State University.

“We did have to talk a lot about finances, and about sacrifices that I would have to make to go to the school of my choice,” Allyson said. “It’s become one of those things we have to talk about pretty much every month when the payments go through.”

Allyson, a sociology major with a focus in criminology who is currently taking 15 credit hours a semester, said she is ahead of the curve in her second semester of college.

“I know it sounds expected, but I am focusing on criminology because my dad was a major influence in my life,” Allyson said.

In 2009 Allyson’s dad, Sandoval County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Harris, died in the line of duty after a shootout with Joseph Burgess in Jemez Springs. Allyson was only 10 years old when her family dynamic changed forever, an incident that still inspires her in her studies.

As it stands, the State of New Mexico will pay college tuition up to five years for children of fallen first-responders. This benefit does not, however, transfer to other states, nor does it cover room and board.

This is an issue state Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, is trying to change with House Bill 55.

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Bill would expand benefits for families of fallen responders

Rep. Tim Lewis

Lewis’ bill will extend college tuition another year, transfer the cost of in-state tuition to another public college in another state, as well as cover room and board for a recipient whose parent has already paid the ultimate price.

Earlier this month, a unanimous vote in the state House of Representatives passed HB 55, but Lewis and co-sponsors Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, and Sen. Bill O’Neill, both Albuquerque Democrats, are waiting for it to pass the Senate.

“If a recipient wants to attend a college in another state, this bill will pay for what it costs to attend a public institution in the state of New Mexico in that state,” Lewis said.

After researching what Colorado does for families of first-responders who died in the line of duty, he said New Mexico was offering less than half of the college benefits.

“Colorado has six years and many other states have that,” he said. “I believe the reason is because the grieving period doesn’t just necessarily end at a certain point in time; it could come back. … Maybe this extra year will help them get their thoughts and life together.”

According to Lewis, there is no grade-point average requirement for recipients; instead the scholarship is geared toward working with students at their own pace.

“If they are not doing so well in school with this program, it would allow that student to take a semester or longer off and come back when they are ready,” Lewis said.

Allyson’s mother, Tonia Harris, said as a mom, she looks for anything she can to make her daughter’s life easier.

“I don’t know what it’s like to grow up without a dad, so anything I can do for her or could be done for her that can help ease any of the stress or the burden because of what’s happened to her to me is a homerun,” Tonia said.

She said she reached out to Lewis after finding out about Colorado’s benefits.

“I asked if New Mexico had anything like this on the books, because after living in Colorado for seven years, it was unlikely that Ally would move back there to go to school,” Tonia said. “A few months later Tim calls, saying he is sponsoring this bill.”

If the bill is approved, students like Allyson could begin receiving tuition assistance as soon as July.

“It would be so amazing if I could have that financial burden off of me and off of my mom,” Allyson said. “I feel like my father is still with me, helping me with my education, and because of him, I will hopefully be able to go through school without a huge amount of debt.”

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