Free college tuition benefits offered to Texas military veterans and their kids are looking much more secure for the next few years as lawmakers in the House back away from efforts to pare back the program known as Hazlewood.
Facing strong pushback from veterans groups and Democrats, the state representative leading the effort to rein in the growing costs of the program told The Texas Tribune on Friday that he no longer plans to try to make wholesale changes that would dramatically shrink the number of veterans and their children who would qualify.
Instead, House Higher Education Committee Chairman J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, is proposing a handful of minor changes. Eligible students would be required to maintain a 2.5 GPA and attend college full time. Recipients would also be required to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid before their tuition is exempted, he said.
That's a far cry from the original version of House Bill 3766 that Lozano filed. That first version would have required a veteran to serve four years before becoming eligible for the program. And the benefits would have expired after 15 years, making it impossible for many veterans to pass on their unused free credit hours to their children.
Lozano plans to also call for more research on the issue and to require schools and state agencies to keep better data on who is receiving benefits. That way, he said, lawmakers will have more information if they choose to re-evaluate the program again in two years.
"I couldn't in good conscience move forward on the [original] bill without more information," he said.
Children of veterans have been eligible for Hazlewood benefits since 2009. When lawmakers approved what is known as the legacy provision, they thought it would have a minor financial impact. The original estimate was that it would eventually cost universities an additional $10 million per year in lost tuition revenue. By 2015, the program's total annual cost was $158 million — and growing. The vast majority of those costs are incurred by the universities, and some school officials have said the program forces them to raise tuition for other students.
Lozano's original version would have probably brought significant savings for the universities, but it also would have meant that a big chunk of the students who now qualify for the program would have been filtered out. That possibility generated vocal opposition inside and outside Lozano's South Texas district, which includes a naval air station. Critics said the ideas broke a promise to veterans, some of whom signed up for the military thinking that they would use the program to pay for their kids' college tuition.
On Friday, Lozano says he now plans to move forward with a bill that was "written by veterans." Upon hearing feedback, he said he met in his office with Rep. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who has been one of the most outspoken critics of changing Hazlewood.
"I pulled the trash can up onto my conference table, and I put that bill in the trash and I said, 'César, you and I and the veterans are going to write this bill,'" Lozano said.
In a statement emailed to the Tribune, Blanco said he understands that Lozano has created a version of the legislation to take some of Blanco's concerns into consideration, "but not all." Blanco added that while he agrees that better data needs to be collected on the program, he maintains "that we just need to prioritize our veterans and offset the costs of the program as we intended."
Since filing the first bill in March, Lozano has repeatedly backed away from its original ideas. This month, he said he planned to adjust the bill to allow current veterans and military members to keep the option to pass on their free college to their kids. Then on Thursday, Lozano offered up a version in his committee that would have left the legacy provision untouched for all veterans — even future ones.
But even that proposal generated opposition from veterans Thursday night during a long hearing on the matter. Veterans who testified against the bill were especially concerned with a proposal to shift control of the program from the Texas Veterans Commission to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Opponents argued that veterans knew how to serve veterans best and that universities, so far, had not provided accurate and standardized data on the program.
After hearing hours of testimony, Lozano rescinded that version of the bill, too. On Friday, he said he plans to offer another substitute that will keep the program in the Veterans Commission. But he said the bill would require the commission and universities to keep more detailed data about the students who benefit from the program.
"We shouldn't act as a Legislature without the information we need and knowing how many people are going to be cut," he said.
Without Lozano's support, it will be difficult for lawmakers to push through broader changes. Only one other bill has been filed that would have proposed major changes to Hazlewood. Lozano said Friday that he wouldn't allow that one to make it out of his committee. More significant changes could still be added as amendments to Lozano's bill, but they'd need the ultimate approval of a skeptical House that killed a proposed Hazlewood overhaul in 2015. Currently, there are no bills in the Senate that propose a major overhaul.
Meanwhile, no universities testified at Thursday's hearing — a shift from past hearings on the issue that drew repeated requests from school officials to do something about the program.
"Their silence is curious," said Jim Brennan, legislative director of the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations.
Still, opponents of broad changes to the program say they'll continue the pressure to keep as much of Hazlewood as they can.
"A promise made should be a promise kept," Blanco said.
Read related Tribune coverage:
- 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.
- Lawmakers to take another look at cutting back free tuition program for veterans' kids. The state is set for another debate about the cost of a program that provides free tuition to children of military veterans.