Legislative action on free Texas university tuition and fees for veterans suddenly has taken a sharp turn.
Members of the House celebrated Sunday after voting 139-0 to reject program changes adopted by the Senate on May 5. It’s likely that a lot of veterans celebrated, too.
Now there are only five days left to make any changes. The session ends Monday, but rules limit the last day to corrections in bills already passed.
Under the current Hazlewood Act, qualified veterans can receive tuition and fee exemptions for up to 150 hours at Texas public institutions of higher education.
In 2009, lawmakers expanded the program to allow those veterans to pass on any unused hours to their dependent children.
The trouble is, much as the state wants to honor and help its veterans, nothing is free. In this case, the Legislature left educational institutions to absorb most of the costs of providing Hazlewood benefits.
And after 2009, those costs skyrocketed. From a relatively manageable $24.7 million that year, the total shot up to $169.1 million in 2014, the Legislative Budget Board says. Universities this year pushed for relief.
The very best way for the Legislature to provide that relief would be to allocate money to the universities to cover the cost. Nobody wants veterans to lose benefits they have been granted.
But senators didn’t go that route. In Senate Bill 1735, they said veterans must have served six years to be eligible to pass free tuition on to their children, and the legacy benefit would expire 15 years after their service ended.
With costs to universities mounting, that looked like the kind of legislative compromise that was the best the veterans could get.
But on Sunday, the eve of Memorial Day, House members revolted. The measure they passed only limits the benefits to dependent children who have lived in Texas for eight years, and it calls for further study of Hazlewood issues.
The bill will go to a conference committee, where restrictions could be restored. But the 139-0 vote shows the House is in no mood for that.