Lawmakers to take another look at cutting back free tuition program for veterans' kids

Two years after efforts failed in the Texas Legislature to pare back a program that gives free college tuition to the children of military veterans, state lawmakers are setting the stage to take another crack at the increasingly expensive benefit.

Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, the new House Higher Education Committee chairman, filed a bill Thursday that would significantly shrink the number of students who qualify for the Hazlewood program. The measure, House Bill 3766, appears to address universities' complaints that the costs of the program have spiraled out of control since it expanded in 2009 to include benefits for veterans' children.

The ideas will be controversial. Veterans groups have fought hard to keep Hazlewood intact, saying it's the least the state can do to thank its military members. A 2015 bill that was strongly backed by the universities died late in the legislative session.

Lozano's bill would bring two major changes. It would require a veteran to have served four years in the military before becoming eligible for the free tuition benefit. Right now, a military member only needs to serve 180 days. The free tuition benefit would also expire 15 years after the veteran was honorably discharged, meaning a child born after his or her parent left the military wouldn't qualify.

If passed, the bill would go into effect next school year. Anyone currently receiving the benefit would continue to be eligible.

Lozano's office said he would be unavailable to comment on the bill Thursday night.

The expiration provision will probably be the most controversial. Veterans groups fought hard against a similar proposal in 2015. But universities say something needs to be done. Hazlewood was originally conceived as a program solely for veterans. But veterans often get free school from the GI Bill, so their 150 free credit hours from the state went unused. The Legislature began allowing former military members to pass on those free hours to children in 2009.

At the time, the state predicted the expansion would cost universities about $10 million per year. In fact, the cost of the program grew by more than 15 times that much. By one estimate, Hazlewood could cost schools a combined $380 million by 2019. (Some veterans groups say that guess is way too high. The cost in 2015 was $178 million, which schools say is already too much.)

Last year, the state only reimbursed universities for about 20 percent of the lost tuition revenue for veterans' dependents. University officials say they end up having to pass the costs on to other students, including poor students who are already struggling to pay for school.

“To me, this is a social justice and economic justice issue," Texas A&M University-Kingsville President Steven M. Tallant told The Texas Tribune last year.

Democrats will fight the bill. In a statement, Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said he was disappointed in Lozano, who has thousand of veterans in his district.

"We should be honoring our heroes, not breaking a promise made to them by this Legislature," Blanco said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/03/09/state-consider-paring-back-hazlewood-tuition-program-veterans-kids/.

 

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