Bill to Rein In Hazlewood Costs Dies

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

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 some 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 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, state 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 limited changes that wouldn't address the long-term cost growth. 

Many of his colleagues in the Senate expressed support for that stance. They praised him for his work, saying they hope it will lead to the Legislature tackling the issue next session.

"Sometimes important issues like this one take a session or two or three," said Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville. "Let's hope during the interim we can study the issue and come up with a solution."

But Birdwell wasn't optimistic. The federal ruling from January is currently under appeal. If that appeal fails, costs could rise quickly, and the state could lose control of the situation, he said. 

"In many respects, I believe that what I recommended this time will not be enough if this program continues for another two years," he said. "The next correction will have to be tougher than the one I recommended this session."

 

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