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Veterans Face Uncertainty as Texas Politicians and Universities Take Aim at Tuition Aid

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Brad Simmons calls serving in the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s the highlight of his military career. He served as a fire support officer in an Army tank company and drove one of those “crappy M113s with a bunch of antennas.”

“That was one of my tanks,” says Simmons, showing a photo of a tank blending into the desert horizon. “It burned to the ground.” He flips to another picture with a ball of fire exploding near the gun turret. “This picture here is the same vehicle later on that a secondary explosion burned to the ground.”

Simmons is now fighting a different war with the Texas Legislature. He's part of a push by veteran organizations to join together to protect the Hazlewood Act, a bill that allows Texas veterans to receive 150 credit hours of tuition at a public university in Texas.

They’re battling against Texas politicians such as Brian Birdwell, a Texas state senator and veteran, who are proposing to cut back the Hazlewood program because Texas public universities claim it’s too costly.

The number of people receiving the Hazlewood exemption increased from 9,882 in 2009 when the legislature agreed to a legacy benefit, which allowed veterans to pass their unused 150 credit hours to their spouse or children, to 38,946 in 2014, a cost increase from $24.7 million to $169.1 million, according to a report released by Rice University in August 2015.

Birdwell’s bill proposed to increase the active duty requirement for soldiers enlisting in Texas from 181 days to 6 years. It also sought to establish an 8-year residency requirement and restrict the educational benefit from 150 credit hours to 60 credit hours only.

“I can think of few things that would be as tragically shortsighted as ignoring the simple facts that foretell the long-term unsustainability of this program,” Birdwell said after the Texas senate passed his bill curtailing the program in 2015. “That’s why the Legislature had to act.”

The bill died in the House.

But the Texas legislature recently held a meeting at the State House with the Defense & Veterans Affairs Committee and the Higher Education Committee in September to discuss what changes they may propose when the next legislative session begins in early January. Perez, Simmons and other Texas veterans fear the state will want to gut the program.

President of Texas A&M University-Kingsville Steven Tallant told the Texas Tribune in an Oct. 30 article that Texas universities receive little help from the state to pay for the program, so they’re making up the cost by raising tuition. In the article Tallant, a Vietnam veteran, said it would be great if the state would pay tuition for Texas veterans’ children, but it simply cost too much. “Why is the cost to provide Hazlewood being paid by students of modest means in South Texas — and not the entire state?”

Perez, who was deployed six times during his 22-year military career, argued that if only 75 percent of a classroom is full, the Hazlewood exemption allows the other 25 percent to be taken by Texas veterans or their family. The problem is many Texas universities are experiencing an influx of new students enrolling.

At the Sept. 13 legislative hearing, testimony was given by several chancellors from the Texas University, Texas A&M, Tyler Junior College, the University of Texas, the University of North Texas and the University of Houston. “In other words, the big guns of the state universities were there in force,” John Spahr, who serves on the board of the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, wrote in a Sept. 14 email.

Supporters of veterans’ interests also rallied. They included representatives from the Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Veterans Commission, the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Other speakers included Leticia Van de Putte, a former Texas representative; Jim Carney, the commander of the Texas Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Command and Joe Farias, a former state representative and Vietnam veteran.

Spahr said for the most part, the chancellor's want to modify the legacy benefit to reduce the costs to universities, targeting the length of service required to earn the Hazlewood exemption. One chancellor suggested changing it to require the veteran to use the exemption within 10 years of separation from the military.

“This would eliminate thousands of young veterans from being able to use the legacy,” he said.

Simmons and Perez understand the legislature may need to reduce the legacy benefit, though they don’t agree with it. But they want Texas politicians to honor their word to veterans and only apply the new changes to soldiers who haven’t yet enlisted.

“It’s not like we’re a Bernie Sanders voter asking for free tuition,” Simmons says. “It’s a benefit that we earned by putting our lives on the line.”

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