Hazlewood Conundrum Lingers Into Weekend

Key lawmakers are still far from an agreement on the future of a popular college tuition program for Texas veterans and their children. If nothing is done, some lawmakers say, the program known as Hazlewood could financially cripple the state's universities.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, listens during a debate over Senate Bill 11 on March 18, 2015.

Update, 3:57 p.m.:

A popular college tuition program for Texas veterans will remain unchanged after key lawmakers in the House and Senate were unable to agree on a bill aimed at reining in its costs.  

That inaction was announced in a speech Saturday on the Senate floor by the bill’s frustrated author, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury. He excoriated his colleagues for being unable to agree to the changes he was pushing, saying Hazlewood’s growing costs could financially cripple the state’s public universities in the future. 

“Whether the members of this legislature choose to accept it or reject it, the numbers are there,” he said. 

He added: “We are kicking the can down the road in a manner that will place [the program] in even more risk in the future.”

But Democrats and veterans groups will surely celebrate the bill’s demise as a victory. They had rallied against the proposed changes, saying they would break a promise the state has made to its military members. 

The Hazlewood program provides free tuition for veterans from Texas who attend public universities in the state. It has been around for decades, but it was expanded in 2009 to allow veterans to pass on unused tuition hours to a dependent child. Since then, costs have increased dramatically, from around $24 million to $169 million. That number could reach $380 million by 2019, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Universities bear the brunt of those costs, and have pleaded for relief. 

Making the budget pressures more dire, a federal judge ruled in January that it is unconstitutional to restrict Hazlewood benefits to veterans who enlisted in Texas. 

If something isn't done to correct that, the program could be opened up to any veteran in the country. 

When it left the Senate, Senate Bill 1735 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would have required veterans to serve at least six years before they could pass on free tuition to a child. In addition, the benefits would expire after 15 years, so most kids born after their parent completed military service wouldn't qualify.  

But the bill was gutted when it reached the House floor on May 24. After hours of debate, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, offered an amendment eliminating nearly all the new restrictions Birdwell proposed. The only significant change that remained was a rule requiring veterans to live in Texas for eight years before they or their children were eligible. 

Birdwell refused to accept those minor changes, saying it was better to take no action than to make the limited changes the House proposed. 

Original story:

If the bill dies, the program will remain the way it is. Lawmakers said they expect they’ll try again next session. 

Entering the final weekend of the legislative session, key lawmakers say they are still far from reaching an agreement on the future of a popular college tuition program for Texas veterans and their children. 

If nothing is done, some lawmakers say, the program known as Hazlewood could financially cripple the state's universities. But a bill designed to change its eligibility rules is caught in conference committee, and committee members say they're struggling to find middle ground. 

The Hazlewood program promises free tuition for veterans from Texas who attend public universities in the state. In 2009, the program was expanded to allow veterans to pass on unused tuition hours to a dependent child. Since then, costs have increased dramatically, from around $24 million to $169 million. That number could reach $380 million by 2019, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Universities bear the brunt of those costs, and have pleaded for relief. 

Making the budget pressures more dire, a federal judge ruled in January the current law's restriction of Hazlewood benefits to veterans who enlisted in Texas is unconstitutional. If something isn't done to correct that, the program could be opened up to any veteran in the country. 

When it left the Senate, Senate Bill 1735 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would have required veterans to serve at least six years before they could pass on free tuition to a child. In addition, the benefits would expire after 15 years, so most kids born after their parent completed military service wouldn't qualify. 

Those ideas are unpopular among veterans' organizations. When the bill reached the House floor on Sunday, Democrats rallied against it. Eventually, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, the bill's sponsor, offered an amendment eliminating nearly all the new restrictions Birdwell proposed. The only significant change that remained was a rule requiring veterans to live in Texas for eight years before they or their children were eligible. 

Two of the original bill's biggest opponents, Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, and Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, were added to the conference committee. And so far, House members have dug in their heels on the legislation, and they appear to have the upper hand. 

On Friday afternoon, House members were pessimistic that any sort of bill could be passed. If the bill dies, the program will remain the way it is — something some House members have said they can live with. But senators have argued that something needs to be done to rein in the costs. A change to the residency requirement wouldn't be much, but it may save universities from greater escalating costs.

"The House and the Senate are pretty far apart on this," Blanco said. "We don't have enough time, so it's going to die."

Zerwas was only slightly less doubtful. He said the bill was on "life support."

Birdwell declined to comment Friday, but another conferee in the upper chamber, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said he was more hopeful. 

"I feel like we can always reach some sort of agreement when we get together and discuss it," he said. 

When asked if he could live with the House's version of the bill, he was noncommittal. 

"We will live with what we have to live with," Seliger said. "I don't think that is optimal. But we will discuss it with the other conferees and the chair, and we will do the best that we can do."

Julián Aguilar contributed to this report.