Texas veterans and their children would see their higher education benefits sliced significantly under a plan heading to the Senate floor.
Tuition exemption costs under the so-called Hazlewood Exemption have skyrocketed from $24.7 million in fiscal year 2010 to $169 million in fiscal year 2014. Texas' higher education institutions shoulder the bulk of those costs.
A plan by Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell, the Senate's most senior military veteran, to address the financial shortfalls passed out of committee Wednesday, but not without criticism.
The bill would require beneficiaries to live in Texas for eight years and would cut free tuition down from 150 hours to 120 hours. It also limits the number of hours a veteran may pass on to a child to 60. The benefits would all expire 15 years after the veteran left military service.
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"I'm concerned honestly that our veterans and their families may end up feeling betrayed by our actions if we pass this," said San Antonio Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez, who cast the sole "nay" in the 5-1 vote Wednesday.
Birdwell, who served more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, told Menendez he was "bristled" by the thought of betraying veterans.
"No one ever wants to bring something like this forward," Birdwell said. "This was my idea of what I thought was the right thing to do."
Texas has the second-highest veteran population in the country, at 1.7 million.
The bulk of the Hazlewood Exemption's costs are caused by a change to state law in 2011 that allowed veterans to pass on unused tuition hours to their children. State officials have said veterans' children now account for more than half of Hazlewood recipients.
Jim Brennan, legislative director for the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, said he and the 6,000 veterans his organizations represent oppose Birdwell's bill. So do the 78,000 members of the American Legion of Texas, said vice commander John McKinney.
"Veterans issues do not exist in a vacuum," Brennan said, adding that it's often families who bear more of a burden when a soldier is deployed.
Percolating through the Texas House is a similar bill by that chamber's senior veteran, Sugar Land Republican Rep. Rick Miller. His measure would require an interim committee to "really dig into Hazlewood from A to Z," he said, but would institute lighter cuts to beneficiaries' tuition hours.
Miller's bill was left pending in committee after a hearing last week. He said Wednesday that if Birdwell's measure is approved by the Senate and progresses to the House, he will continue to push for the interim study.
Both proposals would require recipients to live in Texas for eight years, a move that would replace a requirement in current statute that the beneficiaries be Texas residents upon leaving the armed services.
Last year, a military veteran from Georgia who was living in Houston challenged that requirement in a lawsuit. A federal judge ruled the requirement unconstitutional in January and the student was entitled to the benefit. Texas has appealed the ruling, which some worry may prompt other veterans to relocate to Texas to take advantage of a free education.