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Texas Lawmakers Explore Paring Back Free Tuition for Veterans' Kids

State lawmakers on Tuesday explored what should be done about the spiraling costs of a veterans tuition program known as Hazlewood.

Among those testifying during a joint committee of the Senate Defense & Veterans' Affairs and Higher Education committees on Sept. 13, 2016.: Michael Cline (left) of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University, Lt. Col. Jim Carney and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes.

In 2009, when the Texas Legislature decided to offer free college tuition to the children of many veterans, the state predicted a small impact: Just over 880 beneficiaries would enroll be enrolled by 2014.

That was way off.

Five years later, the number of "legacy" students getting free tuition from the program known as Hazlewood was more than 21 times the original guess — 18,599 students and growing. That caused the state's universities to raise concerns that the program was costing them too much. 

On Tuesday, members of two Texas House committees met for more than five hours to discuss how and whether to slow that growth. But the meeting once again became bogged down over an issue that has plagued the debate for years: No one is quite sure how much the program will cost a few years down the road. 

In 2015, the program cost Texas universities a combined $178 million, according to the state comptroller's office. But what that number will look like three years from now is a matter of debate. In 2015, the Legislative Budget Board predicted that it would cost $380 million by 2019. A report by Rice University's Hobby Center for the Study of Texas commissioned by the Texas Veterans Commission, however, suggested that the number may be much lower.

Michael Cline, associate director of the Hobby Center, didn't give a specific dollar amount to lawmakers Tuesday. But he estimated that the number of people using the program would be about 24 percent less than the LBB projected last year. And eventually, he said, that growth would level out as the number of living veterans in Texas declined. 

Opponents of changing the Hazlewood program seized on those projections as a sign that the alarm being raised by universities was overblown. But the universities argued that the program is already too expensive that it needs to be tackled no matter whose projections are correct. 

"The legacy portion of the program as it exists is totally unsustainable to us," said Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System. 

Tuesday's discussion highlighted how fraught the debate over Hazlewood has become, and why lawmakers haven't been able to find a solution. Each side can claim a sympathetic constituency. The universities say they are struggling to keep costs down for the average student and that each tuition dollar deferred by the Hazlewood program must be made up by someone else. 

But opponents of Hazlewood changes say the program needs to be preserved for the sake of veterans who made sacrifices for their country. They say many veterans were recruited on the promise free tuition for them or their families and that to take it away now would be a betrayal. 

Hazlewood has promised free tuition to Texas veterans since the 1920s. But it was little-used for decades because the federal GI Bill paid for so much of veterans' higher education costs. Then in 2009, the Legislature voted to allow veterans to pass on their unused free tuition to a dependent child. Suddenly, the program's use exploded. 

Then-Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, authored the 2009 expansion. She testified Tuesday that lawmakers didn't know at the time how many people would use the program because the universities kept insufficient records then. 

"There were universities who had no idea who was on campus and who wasn't," she said. 

But she argued Tuesday that worries about the unexpectedly high costs miss a point: Universities probably wouldn't be complaining about the money if the state were funding them at previous levels, she said. But in 2011, two years after the legacy benefit was added, the state cut almost $1 billion from higher education. 

"If we had actually funded [the universities], then we wouldn't be here today analyzing how to cut back on this," she said. 

Others disagreed. Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said the small predicted price tag of the 2009 bill was one the reasons lawmakers voted in favor of it. 

The question is what to do now. University officials suggested several fixes, such as increasing the minimum amount of time that a military member must serve to be eligible to pass on the free tuition. Lawmakers and school officials have also raised the idea of putting an expiration date on how long the legacy benefits are transferrable; requiring a minimum GPA for students using the benefit, or capping the number of free credit hours the free tuition can be used by children of veterans. 

Others urged the state to keep the program as it is, and to have the Legislature reimburse the schools for the lost tuition revenue. Former Rep. Joe Farias, a Democrat from San Antonio, drove to Austin just weeks after receiving a kidney transplant to make that case. Farias played a big role in killing the bill that would have pared back the program in 2015. 

"I don't care where the money comes from; I don't care if someone grows a tree and gets it from there," said Farias, a U.S. Army veteran. "We just need to continue to fund the veterans and our families."

He then called attention to former Gov. Rick Perry, who made his debut the night before on the television show "Dancing With the Stars." Perry has said on the show that he is trying to promote veterans issues. 

"We have a former governor right now dancing on television saying he's dancing for veterans," Farias said. "Well by God, let's dance for veterans right here."

Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:

  • Texas universities can deny free tuition to veterans who gained state residency only after enlisting in the military, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday — a decision that could ease some, but not all, concerns about a prominent benefit program’s spiraling costs.
  • 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. 

Disclosure: Rice University and the Texas State University System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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