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Hazlewood plan would leave benefits for current veterans untouched

Colleges are asking the state to pare back the state program that offers free tuition to veterans or their children. But key lawmakers in the Texas House don't want to mess with what's being offered to current veterans and their families.

Texas A&M Kingsville Army ROTC cadets  (l-r) Andrew Wilson, Nathaniel Estes, Octavio Calleja-Ponce, Daniel Obrego and Cristian Barriosalas raise the flag in front of Texas A&M Kingsville's College Hall on October 26, 2016.

One month into Rep. J.M. Lozano's tenure as chairman of the Texas House's Higher Education Committee, the Republican from Kingsville knew time was running short. 

The March 10 deadline to file bills for the 2017 legislative session was a day away, and nothing comprehensive had been submitted to address the spiraling costs of the state program known as Hazlewood, which offers free college tuition to veterans. Colleges had been raising the alarm about the increasingly expensive benefit for years. Pressure was mounting to do something about it.  

So Lozano filed House Bill 3766, which would have significantly limited who could qualify for the program. The proposal sparked outrage from Democrats and veterans groups who said it would renege on the state's promise to people who put their lives at risk for their country. 

One month later, Lozano says he's determined not to break that promise. In an interview Monday, he said the bill he filed was a placeholder and never meant to be his final proposal. Soon, he said, he'll submit a wholesale substitute in his committee that will preserve the Hazlewood benefit for many, if not all, of the veterans who currently qualify for it. 

What the new version will say, exactly, is unclear; Lozano said he is still working on it and probably won't have it ready for public consumption until at least next week. But his stated intention is substantial for the future of the program. There's only one other bill pending in the Legislature that proposes wholesale changes to Hazlewood. That one, filed by Rep. Rick Miller, a Navy veteran and Republican from Sugar Land, also includes a grandfather provision keeping the current benefits intact for current veterans. 

That will probably come as a relief to many veterans who have watched the fight over Hazlewood for months, worried that they may lose a benefit they've been counting on for years.

Lozano's original bill would have brought two quick changes. It would have required a veteran to have served four years in the military before becoming eligible for the free tuition benefit — right now, a military member only needs to serve 180 days. And the free tuition benefit would have expired 15 years after the veteran was honorably discharged, meaning a child born after his or her parent left the military wouldn't qualify. 

Lawmakers could still resuscitate those ideas. But for now, their implementation seems unlikely — at least for those who have already been discharged from the military. 

Lozano said he has spoken with many of the veterans who protested the ideas. When the future of the Hazlewood program was debated in 2015, he wasn't a member of the Higher Education Committee. Lately, he has been trying to study up on the program.

"I used to enjoy Netflix," he said. "Now, watching old higher ed hearings is my Netflix."

What he has learned is that Hazlewood has existed for decades but has had little impact on universities' budgets until recently. The original version only promised free tuition to veterans, most of who already had access to free school from the GI Bill or other forms of federal assistance. In 2009, the program was updated to allow veterans to pass on their unused benefits to dependent children. 

At the time, the state predicted the expansion would cost universities about $10 million per year. In fact, the cost of the program grew by more than 15 times that much. By one estimate, Hazlewood could cost schools a combined $380 million by 2019. (Some veterans groups say that guess is way too high. The cost in 2015 was $178 million, which schools say is already too much.)

In 2015, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, proposed a fix to the program similar to Lozano's original bill. It passed the Senate but was gutted in the House and eventually failed to become law. 

University leaders, including those in Lozano's district, have pleaded for the Legislature to try again. Those officials won't likely be satisfied with a bill that doesn't start to reduce costs for years, especially in a legislative session in which they could face steep funding cuts and a Legislature-mandated tuition freeze. But Lozano said he had to keep veterans and their families in mind. 

"I hope that the [new version] that I have is almost in totality written by veterans," he said. "That might not be the best-case scenario for higher ed, but that is how the legislative process works."

On Wednesday, the committee Lozano presides over will begin discussing the issue. Lozano's bill won't be on the agenda, but Miller's will. That proposal would keep the program intact for all current veterans. For future veterans to qualify, they'd need to serve two years — or six years if they want to pass the benefits on to their children. The benefit would also expire for future veterans after 20 years. 

Miller said he offered his solution "to keep the commitment to the veterans who have served." Lozano said he isn't sure which bill will make it through the Higher Education Committee. 

Either way, not all veterans will be happy. Many don't want to see any substantial changes to the program.

"Politicians love to say we owe veterans so much and everything," said Robert McBride, veterans service officer in Nolan County. "And then higher ed pulls an imaginary number out of the air and all of a sudden owing us everything costs too much money."

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Higher education State government 85th Legislative Session Rick Miller Texas Legislature