Some Texas military veterans no longer would be able to pass their unused state tuition benefits to their children under a watered-down reform bill the Texas Senate approved Tuesday — a measure designed to curb the ballooning price tag of the so-called Hazlewood program.
Senate Bill 1735 by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, also would require non-Texas born military veterans to live in the state for at least eight years before claiming tuition benefits for them or their families. That provision is meant to address a recent court ruling that found the current Texas-only residency requirement of the program unconstitutional — a decision that sparked concern that hundreds of thousands of veterans who enlisted elsewhere could move to the state to claim free tuition for them or their children after taking just a year to establish residency.
The decades-old Hazlewood program has already grown rapidly since 2009 when the Legislature voted unanimously to expand it so that veterans could bestow 120 of 150 unused college credit hours on dependents — without giving the state’s public colleges and universities any additional money to make up for lost tuition and fee revenue.
John Tusia, a junior geography student and Army veteran, relaxes in the Student Veterans Services offices on the University of Texas campus on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. Tusia is currently attending school on the G.I. Bill.
Now, higher education officials say they have had to raise tuition on all students to make up for the escalating sum of the waivers, which has grown more than five-fold in the past six years to nearly $170 million. Waivers are expected to total $379 million by 2019 if no changes are made.
Birdwell, the Legislature’s longest-serving military veteran, described the projected growth as “unsustainable” Tuesday and said reforms are necessary to preserve the Hazlewood program “for future generations.”
He also emphasized that the changes would not directly reduce tuition benefits for veterans themselves, but rather target the so-called “legacy” portion of the program.
One of the most significant changes would increase the amount of time veterans have to serve in the military in order to pass Hazlewood benefits to their children — from 180 days to six years. That includes reserve and non-contiguous service.
Veterans also would have just 15 years from the time they are discharged to do so — a provision Birdwell said was meant to ensure the state is helping only family members who were “in the picture at the time of the veteran’s service.”
“I believe we’re overextending a benefit that we cannot extend to those that didn’t bear that price,” he said of the current program.
Under Birdwell’s bill, children of veterans also could only use Hazlewood benefits for undergraduate degrees and would have to maintain a 2.5 GPA to remain eligibile. Current high school juniors and seniors and college students already in the program would be grandfathered.
But Birdwell backpedaled Tuesday on a provision he defended less than two weeks ago that would have cut in half the number of college credit hours veterans can pass on to dependents. Responding to concerns from veterans, he successfully offered an amendment to his bill Tuesday that restored that total to 120 hours.
That was not good enough for several Democratic senators, though — particularly José Menéndez of San Antonio, who unsuccessfully attempted to further water down the bill Tuesday and also questioned the accuracy of the reported cost of the Hazlewood program.
“I believe that it goes a little too far,” he said of Birdwell’s legislation, urging the Senate to instead invest a multi-billion dollar surplus so the program can be maintained as-is.
Meanwhile, several Republican senators — and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — applauded Birdwell for crafting what they described as tough but necessary changes to the program.
“I don’t think any of us who voted with good intentions in our hearts ever anticipated (the program cost) would grow to that,” said Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, referring to the 2009 decision to expand Hazlewood.
The Senate ultimately approved Birdwell’s bill 24-7 with more than half of the chamber’s Democratic members casting all the ‘no’ votes. The legislation now goes to the Texas House, where lawmakers have also been crafting Hazlewood reforms.