Lege promise to veterans must still have meaning

In 2009, when the number of American troops having served in Iraq and Afghanistan topped the 2 million mark, Texas legislators were anxious to do something meaningful to show their appreciation to the thousands returning to the Lone Star State from those wars.

They came up with a plan from then-state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, to expand the decades-old Hazlewood Act, which at the time provided that Texas veterans who had spent at least 180 days on active duty would be allowed to receive 150 credit hours at any state university for free.

The revision to the law allowed honorably discharged veterans to transfer their unused college hours to their children, an idea that was popular because so many vets did not use all of their credits. It also called for the universities to pick up the tab for the students’ tuition.

While it was a noble idea, it was a flawed plan from the beginning. Initially, the Legislative Budget Board predicted that the program would cost $21 million a year by 2014. As it turns out, the LLB has estimated the cost to state universities last year was $169.1 million with an expectation that it will rise to $379 million by 2019, the Texas Tribune reported.

The program has turned into a massive underfunded mandate for public colleges, which are struggling financially because of lack of state funding.

In an attempt to address the issue without completely going back on its promises, the Senate passed a bill this month that would require a veteran to have served six years before being able to pass along the educational benefit to a child. The bill would add an expiration date of 15 years.

The version of Senate Bill 1735 that passed a House committee this week included a provision that would cap the free tuition for veterans’ children at 60 hours, about half the number needed for a typical bachelor’s degree, the Tribune said. Those two versions will have to be reconciled, although it’s predicted that the full House will approve something closer to the Senate model.

Several veterans’ groups are unhappy with the changes, as many were counting on these benefits. In their minds, a promise is a promise that should not be broken.

Ideally the state should be fair to its veterans and the institutions of higher learning by funding the program as passed in 2009. But realistically, the cost is too high.

So the latest proposals, with a grandfather clause to benefit students who are juniors and seniors in high school, seem to be a good alternative.