The Texas Legislature has rejected a proposal to overhaul the Hazlewood Act, a victory for veterans groups that had opposed a Republican state senator’s attempt to rein in costs of the lucrative education benefit military for veterans and their dependents, but a potential threat to the program’s long-term viability.
The bill revamping the popular college tuition program for Texas veterans died in conference committee on the final weekend of the 84th Texas Legislature’s regular session in May after House and Senate lawmakers were unable to settle the differences between Sen. Brian Birdwell’s Senate Bill 1735, which would have overhauled the Hazlewood Act, and a House bill that merely tweaked the residency requirement.
“We are kicking the can down the road in a manner that will place [the program] in even more risk in the future,” state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) told his colleagues in a May 30 speech on the Senate floor announcing his bill’s demise.
The Hazlewood Act provides qualified veterans with an education benefit of up to 150 hours of tuition and fees at a Texas public college or university. In addition, the “legacy” provision allows Texas veterans to pass up to 120 of their unused credit hours to children age 25 or younger. To qualify, a veteran when entering military service must have designated Texas as their “Home of Record,” entered the service in Texas or been a Texas resident.
Though the current law stipulates Texas veterans must exhaust their federal GI Bill benefits before tapping their state education benefits, Hazlewood’s price tag has skyrocketed in recent years, from $19.6 million in 2007 to $169.1 million in 2014, causing universities to lobby for changes. College administrators say other students are paying the price for Hazlewood in the form of higher tuition, fewer professors and reductions in student services.
“Our Texas veterans have served their country, and we’re committed to serving them with the Hazlewood program. But we can’t sustain the current model. We must honor our commitment to these deserving Americans, but honor it in a way that is affordable and sustainable for the state and doesn’t unduly burden other students,” wrote University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven and Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp in a Texas Tribune editorial.
Efforts to reform the Hazlewood Act took on added urgency after a U.S. District judge in January ruled in favor of a University of Houston law student who sued the state, arguing it is unconstitutional to restrict Hazlewood benefits to veterans who enlisted in Texas. Should the state lose its appeal, lawmakers fear an influx of veterans – and their dependents – moving to Texas solely to take advantage of the Hazlewood tuition exemption.
The Hazlewood Act dates back to 1923 when the Texas Legislature directed universities to cover costs for honorably discharged Texas veterans who had served in the armed forces or as nurses during World War I. State Sen. Grady Hazlewood’s name became attached to the program in the 1940s when he orchestrated passage of the first loan program in any state that offered tuition-free education to World War II veterans.
When state lawmakers added the so-called legacy provision in 2009, they estimated 850 children of veterans would access the program the first year, with modest growth in participation and cost in subsequent years. Instead, the program has experienced dramatic growth. More than 19,700 children used the exemption in 2014, at a cost of $111.3 million. By 2019, the Legislative Budget Board estimates nearly twice as many legacy students as veterans will be attending college using Hazlewood benefits, at a cost of $379.1 million.
Despite the spiraling costs, veterans groups have urged the state not to break its promise to military members, pointing out that veterans bring in over $6 billion to the Texas economy in federal disability compensation funds each year and nearly $980 million in federal education funds.
Chuck Bagnato, executive director of the Lone Star Veterans Association, supports some “tightening” of Hazlewood’s provisions, but argues the legacy benefit should remain intact.
“The universities and the state of Texas have the capacity to make good on their promise,” Bagnato said. “Why would they tell veterans this is something we want to do for you and then come back and rescind it just because they didn’t do their homework or didn’t know what the impact would be?”
Birdwell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and survivor of the Sept. 11th terrorist attack on the Pentagon, spearheaded the Senate’s effort to reform Hazlewood, arguing that leaving the benefit in its current form is financially irresponsible.
“The Hazlewood program is quickly becoming unviable, and soon, its benefits will be too costly to provide even to the veteran – not just his or her dependent,” Birdwell said. “I can think of few things that would be as tragically shortsighted as ignoring the simple facts that foretell the long-term unsustainability of this program.”
Birdwell’s Senate Bill 1735 would have:
- Required veterans who did not enter military service in Texas to establish and maintain residence in Texas for eight years in order to access Hazlewood benefits
- Required six years of service for a veteran to be eligible to pass credit hours to their children
- Implemented a 15-year time limit on use of the exemption from the veteran’s end of time in service
- Required dependents to maintain a 2.5 GPH and complete 24 credit hours per academic year
- No longer allow dependents to use the program for post-bachelor’s degree programs
The House bill would have stipulated that non-Texas veterans live in the state for eight years before they or their children are eligible for Hazlewood benefits.