College for veterans is a vow that must be kept

The Texas Legislature made a commitment to veterans in 2009 that, after they honorably completed their service, they would be exempt from tuition and certain fees at public institutions of higher education in the state.

It’s a commitment lawmakers cannot go back on now, even though its costs have soared and could go far higher still. What the Legislature can and should do is give colleges and universities some relief from the financial burden.

The 2009 change came as an expansion of the Hazlewood Act.

It turned into a more expensive commitment than many lawmakers thought at the time. Thousands of veterans took advantage of the expanded eligibility.

Still, the state budget was shielded from the financial burden, because the 2009 legislation left it to colleges and universities to pick up the cost.

Initially, the cost of Hazlewood exemptions jumped from the previous $24.7 million to $69.3 million, the Houston Chronicle reported.

In 2014, Texas public universities spent $169 million on Hazlewood benefits. Now circumstances have changed again, and the cost could go significantly higher.

U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. of Houston has ruled a key limiting requirement in the 2009 law to be unconstitutional. That requirement had said the Hazlewood benefits would only be available to people who lived in Texas and enlisted in Texas for their military service.

While the state attorney general’s office is contemplating an appeal, the Texas Veterans Commission has said that a “worst case” scenario (veterans moving to Texas to take advantage of the benefits, for example) could send the annual cost for universities as high as $2 billion.

“We’ve created a monster,” state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said during a committee meeting last week.

A monster it may be, but it’s one the Legislature owns and can’t dispose of easily. Even if a successful appeal overturns Werlein’s ruling, thousands of service members and veterans from Texas are eligible for state education benefits.

As the costs soar, legislators can no longer expect universities to absorb them. Help must come in the state budget.

Maybe somewhere down the road lawmakers can find a way to fairly cap the expense. But that doesn’t seem likely right now.