*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
An effort to overhaul the state’s tuition-for-veterans program dissolved in the Texas House on Sunday, with the sponsor of the bill offering an amendment that would leave the program virtually unchanged from its current form.
The action by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, would gut Senate Bill 1735, which would have made many children of veterans ineligible for free tuition. Zerwas had been pushing the bill at the request of universities, which have said that the "legacy" benefit was costing them too much.
But after more than two hours of debate on the day before Memorial Day, the bill was temporarily pulled down because of a procedural challenge. And while the House moved on to other business, Zerwas notified opponents of the bill that he had relented. SB 1735 didn't appear to have the votes, he said.
“My sense from the House votes is that it was pretty clear that they didn’t want to change the legacy program,” Zerwas said.
Zerwas then offered an amendment that would only slightly tweak the existing Hazlewood program to prevent people from all over the country from trying to reap the benefits in Texas. Under Zerwas’ proposal, children of veterans would only be able to reap legacy benefits in Texas if they have lived here for eight years.
With Zerwas’ amendment, the bill was tentatively approved by a 139-0 vote. Opponents of the bill were thrilled with the last-minute change.
“I am so pleasantly surprised that we were able to work through this,” said Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, who received a standing ovation on Friday after a speech against the bill on the House floor.
But it’s still possible for more sweeping changes to be applied. After final passage, the House version of the bill will have to be reconciled with the Senate’s. Zerwas said he’d like to see some new restrictions on the program added, though he’s not sure how likely the full House would be to approve those changes.
Under Hazlewood, any veteran who has served at least 180 days is eligible for 150 hours of free tuition at a state school. In 2009, the Legislature broadened the program to allow veterans to pass on that benefit to a dependent child.
Since then, costs have skyrocketed. In 2009, $24.7 million worth of free tuition was handed out under the program. In 2014, that amount had climbed to $169.1 million, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
The state’s public universities absorb almost all of those costs. The state provides about $30 million to help, but the schools have warned that they can’t handle any more exempted tuition. Some schools have said defrayed tuition adds up to as much as 5 percent of their budget. And they have warned that they might need to raise costs for other students to pay for the tuition of the veterans and their kids.
The upper chamber passed SB 1735 on May 5. It would have required a veteran to serve six years before passing on the free tuition to a child. And that legacy opportunity would have expired 15 years after the veteran left the military, meaning kids born after their parents’ military service wouldn't normally be eligible.
Many veterans have said they understood the universities' worries. But they questioned the accuracy of estimates about how much Hazlewood was costing. Plus, they complained that veterans had been promised a benefit, so it shouldn’t be stripped away without warning.
"Why hurt the families we hold so dear?" Farias asked members on Friday. "Why take from them when they have given so much?"
Zerwas told reporters Sunday evening that he was sympathetic to those complaints but hoped to get some changes through. The program laid out in SB 1735 would still have been the most generous in the country, he said.
“Despite being the most generous program in the nation, it is seen as something the veteran deserves,” he said.
But after his amendment, the House version of the bill only asks for a study of Hazlewood’s costs.
And it will only make a slight tweak to eligibility rules for veterans themselves.
The big change is that a veteran will need to live in Texas for eight years before he or she is eligible for free tuition. Right now, a veteran only needs to have enlisted in Texas to qualify for the benefit, but a federal court ruled earlier this year that that rule is unconstitutional. If no legislative change is made in response to the lawsuit, any veteran in the country could qualify for Texas' benefits. Preventing that, Zerwas said, is the most important thing the Legislature can do for Texas universities this year.
“This is a bipartisan consensus position that I am going to take,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, that the universities might not be pleased if they miss out on broader changes.
“There’s nothing we can do about that – at least on the House side,” he said.
House Speaker Joe Straus commended the House for reaching the conclusion it did. "The House values this program and the promise it holds for veterans and their families, and we take our obligation to them very seriously," he said. "We also take seriously projected increases in the cost of this benefit. Because of today's vote, the House will have better information with which to address this issue in the future.”