State legislature, judiciary propose contrasting changes to Hazlewood tuition exemption

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

As state lawmakers are threatening to decrease funding for the Hazlewood tuition exemption program, the state judiciary has declared restriction of the program unconstitutional.

The Hazlewood tuition exemption benefits Texan veterans and their dependents to increase college affordability. Currently, the program states veterans who served 181 days in any branch of the military and were honorably discharged are allowed to receive 150 hours of free tuition to an in-state Texas college for themselves or a child.

In January, a judge ruled it unconstitutional to restrict the program to include only veterans who enlisted or registered as Texas residents. The judge said the program must expand to include current Texas residents who previously enlisted in any state. Soon after the judge’s ruling, the state appealed the decision. The decision of that lawsuit has not yet been announced so still only Texan veterans can use the program.

At the same time as the judiciary moved to deny the restriction, the legislature continues to make attempts to reduce the program because of financial concerns. With the state’s current budget, there is no plan to fund the exemption as it stands. Paul Theobald, Defense and Veteran Affairs Committee clerk, said committees will propose bills in the 2017 legislative session.

“The key will be to discover the best solutions which uphold Texas’ promise to Veterans and their families while ensuring that the Hazlewood Act is financially solvent,” Theobald said in an email.

In this current legislative session, House Speaker Joe Straus has given the Committee of Higher Education and the Committee of Defense and Veteran Affairs an interim charge to find new solutions to make the program viable.

The legislature is grappling with the hefty price tag of the program, which has ballooned to millions more than budgeted. The value of awards given in the exemption’s first year was $24.7 million. That number has increased to a current $169.1 million and is projected to reach $379.1 million if the law remains unchanged. This prediction does not account for an expansion to veterans from all states.

Communication studies freshman Julia O’Hanlon said she is currently excluded from the program because her veteran father enlisted in Pennsylvania.

“I’m excited [about the possibility of the program’s expansion],” O’Hanlon said. “Education is expensive and my sister and I both want to go to graduate school. Any extra help would be useful.” 

Theobald said it is unlikely for there to be any change before the 2017 session, but denial of the appeal of the judge’s ruling may cause immediate change.

“The results of that case, if decided before the next legislative session, may possibly warrant some kind of emergency policy change before there is an opportunity for a legislative fix,” Theobald said.

Journalism senior Melyssa Fairfield, an exemption recipient, said as a senior she will not likely be affected by the cuts. 

“I am very proud of my stepdad’s service in the Navy, and I feel he definitely earned the exemption because of his dedication to serving our country,” Fairfield said. “Having the Hazlewood exemption makes me feel extremely less stressed about college. If it was cut or made smaller before this year, I would have to take more loans to cover the cost of tuition which would make school significantly more stressful for me.”