You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myStatesman.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myStatesman.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myStatesman.com.

Texas lawmakers appalled at rising cost of free tuition for vets


Six years ago, it seemed like a political no-brainer.

Texas lawmakers voted unanimously to expand a state program dating back to 1923 that waives tuition and fees for military veterans at public colleges and universities so they could pass those benefits on to their children. Besides demonstrating support for those who have sacrificed for the country, the vote also had no financial strings attached, at least for the state Senate Bill 93 didn’t alter a previous stipulation that colleges and universities pick up the entire tab, which has since grown nearly sevenfold.

But now, lawmakers are having big regrets.

Last month, a federal judge struck down a provision of the so-called Hazlewood Act that says military veterans and their families may receive tuition benefits only if they enlisted while living in Texas. The ruling creates the possibility that more and more veterans who enlisted elsewhere could move here to claim free tuition after taking just a year to establish residency.

Hazlewood waives tuition for veterans who don’t receive federal benefits or whose federal benefits don’t completely cover tuition and fees, and it allows them to pass the unused benefit to their children.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. said the University of Houston couldn’t deny Hazlewood benefits to plaintiff Keith Harris just because he had enlisted in the Army while living in Georgia.

The Texas attorney general’s office said this week it plans to appeal the ruling. But if it sticks, and lawmakers don’t tweak the program, the Texas Veterans Commission estimates the annual cost associated with the Hazlewood exemption could immediately jump from $169.1 million in fiscal 2014 to $750 million and eventually surge to $2 billion a year — assuming veterans begin moving here to claim tuition benefits.

Those staggering figures were relayed to Senate budget writers for the first time this week by Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson.

“This has got to be fixed. We’ve created a monster,” responded a wide-eyed state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.

“We didn’t see this one coming,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

“No,” replied Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We need to make sure the intent of the original Hazlewood program is kept intact, but our current path is just not sustainable.”

Adding to the pressure, Gov. Greg Abbott during his campaign last year called for the state to pick up the entire tab for Hazlewood, describing it as an “unfunded mandate” for colleges and universities — a position that higher education leaders wholeheartedly agree with.

While University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven this week described the Hazlewood program as “phenomenal,” he said he hopes the state will fund it to lift the burden on public universities.

Legacies

Apart from the staggering cost projections tied to the court ruling, the exemptions granted under Hazlewood already were on the rise thanks to a 2009 amendment that created the so-called Legacy Program, which lets veterans pass their unused tuition exemptions to their children.

In 2008-09, the annual price tag of Hazlewood was $24.7 million with just 9,882 students, according to the Legislative Budget Board. In 2013-14, it had grown to nearly $170 million with nearly 39,000 students participating — half of them considered “legacies.”

In 2013, responding to rising costs, lawmakers set aside $15 million a year to help offset Hazlewood exemptions, although only $11.4 million has been paid out so far, according to the budget board. The Senate’s first-draft 2016-17 budget proposes spending $23.5 million.

Budget board staff told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday that if no changes are made to the program, the tuition and fees waived under Hazlewood likely would grow to $371 million by fiscal 2019 to cover 63,200 students. That estimate assumes most of the future growth will be within the legacy program.

Fixes?

In December, prior to the court ruling, the budget board issued a report that proposed three different ways to rein in the legacy program, including adding a financial need provision, reducing the number of semester credit hours that can be transferred from a veteran to a child or — as is done in the federal Post 9/11 GI Bill — tying the number of credit hours that can be passed on with the veteran’s length of military service.

But Texas House chief budget writer Rep. John Otto said Friday that “the district court’s decision has changed the landscape” of the discussion.

“The Hazlewood Act is important and will be a priority this session,” the Dayton Republican said in a statement that also noted the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee will be briefed on the issue next week.

Austin lawyer Sergio Tristan, 33, an Army veteran who claimed Hazlewood benefits to attend the Texas Tech University School of Law after his first of two tours in Iraq, said he is concerned about proposals to turn Hazlewood into a state appropriation rather than an exemption because that would mean veterans would have to fight for funding every two years when the Legislature meets.

“That is not the Texas way,” he said, noting the state’s long history of supporting veterans.

Tristan also casts doubt on the $2 billion projection that assumes a flood of veterans into Texas.

He said the program’s exponential growth could be addressed simply by altering the so-called fixed-point residency requirement in current law — the one struck down in the recent court ruling — so that it requires only that a veteran and their dependents be Texas residents for at least eight years before becoming eligible to apply for Hazlewood benefits.

Tristan said that also would fix another problem with the current law: “If a soldier enlists in Georgia — like the guy who sued Texas did — (then) comes to Texas and lives in Texas for 80 years, he still is not eligible for Hazlewood.”


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Texas News & Politics

More millenials live with parents in S. Florida than anywhere else
More millenials live with parents in S. Florida than anywhere else

A new study suggests that millennials in South Florida live with their parents at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. >> Read more trending news  The study conducted by Abodo found that 44.8 percent of millennials in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area still live with their parents. That’s the highest percentage...
15% of UT women report being raped, Capitol hearing reveals
15% of UT women report being raped, Capitol hearing reveals

A survey of University of Texas undergraduates found that 15 percent of women reported being raped while enrolled at the Austin campus. The survey result, revealed Thursday during a Capitol hearing on four bills to address what was described as an “epidemic” of sexual assaults on college campuses, jolted several senators and brought promises...
Man whose parents locked him away for 2 years wants them to stay in prison
Man whose parents locked him away for 2 years wants them to stay in prison

For two years, Mitch Comer’s mother and stepfather, Sheila Comer and Paul Comer, kept him locked inside a bedroom in his family’s rental home in Georgia. He was shut off from the outside world and even his two younger sisters until September 2012. By then, Comer, who was 18 at the time, was loaded on a bus and sent to Los Angeles with...
UT groups promote sex assault prevention ahead of annual ‘Round Up’ weekend
UT groups promote sex assault prevention ahead of annual ‘Round Up’ weekend

The University of Texas is gearing up for  the 87th annual “Round Up” weekend, an annual philanthropy event hosted by the Interfraternity Council at Texas, but some students and organizations are taking precautions to prevent sexual assault. From Thursday night through Saturday, members of the IFC – which governs 27 Greek...
Inmate accused of plotting murders of sexual assault victims
Inmate accused of plotting murders of sexual assault victims

An inmate in a Pennsylvania jail the Allegheny County Jail is accused of plotting the murders of five juveniles who accused him of sexual assault. Michael Scherbanic, 29, a prisoner in the Allegheny County Jail and is now charged with 27 new criminal counts, including solicitation to commit criminal homicide.  >> Read more trending news...
More Stories