SENATE GIVES PRELIMINARY APPROVAL CHANGES TO VETERANS TUITION PROGRAM
|Senator Brian Birdwell of Granbury led efforts to avoid a financial breakdown of a state tuition program for veterans.|
(AUSTIN) — The Senate tentatively passed a bill Tuesday that would add limits to certain veteran tuition benefits, a move the author says is necessary to save the program. Granbury Senator Brian Birdwell said that what began as well-intentioned aid for the children of veterans has ballooned into a very expensive program that has exceeded projected costs by several orders of magnitude. "We are taking these actions to save this program for future generations while maintaining fiscal soundness," he said.
At issue is a nearly 100 year old program offered by the state to veterans to pay for college education. Known as the Hazlewood act, the state program pays for up to 120 hours of college course work for any Texas veteran. It was originally only offered to veterans themselves as well as the children of veterans who are killed or missing in action, or meet the definition of one-hundred percent disability. In 2009, the Legislature passed a bill that expanded this benefit to the children of all Texas veterans, allowing them to pass along any unused credit hours to their sons and daughters. In 2009, only 4 percent of Hazlewood benefit recipients were these "legacy" students, which cost the state about $25 million per year. Five years later, more than half of all Hazlewood recipients were legacies, and the cost of the program had risen dramatically to $169 million, an increase of 584 percent. By 2019, said Birdwell, those costs could exceed $370 million per year.
Complicating this program is a recent federal court decision in response to a suit brought by a University of Houston law student. That student, who was not from Texas originally, claimed that the residency requirements under the original Hazlewood act was unconstitutional, and the court agreed. The state is currently appealing the decision, but Birdwell warned that if the state loses, it means that any veteran and his or her children regardless of where they live today could move to Texas and qualify for a Hazlewood tuition exemption.
Birdwell's bill, SB 1735, makes a number of changes to the act, but he emphasized that it would not make any changes that affect the children of veterans who are one hundred percent disabled or are missing or killed in action, nor anyone already receiving Hazlewood benefits in college. The children of veterans who are today high school seniors and juniors will also be grandfathered in. The bill would require that a veteran live in Texas for eight consecutive years to use the program. Veterans would have up to 15 years after they leave military service to avail themselves or their children of the program. It would also require that recipients exhaust all available state and federal financial aid programs before receiving Hazlewood exemptions. A veteran who wants to pass along credit hours to their children would have to serve for a minimum of six years, and could only receive tuition waivers for undergraduate programs. Legacy students must also maintain a 2.5 GPA and complete 24 credit hours per year to remain eligible.
Birdwell, himself a veteran, said passing this bill was a difficult decision. Though these are tough decisions, he said, without making these changes, the Legislature would face a much harder choice in the very near future. "It is easy to focus only on the short-term needs of our veterans and their dependents, but it would be tragically shortsighted to ignore the simple facts that foretell the long-term unsustainability of this program," he wrote in a post-session press release.
The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, May 6 at 11 a.m.