Committee hears Hazlewood exemption bills

Eleanor Dearman

Last fiscal year, UT excused about $9.7 million in tuition revenue for 1,034 student veterans and their families as part of the Texas Hazlewood Act tuition exemption, according to a Legislative Budget Board report. 

State lawmakers are working to reduce losses to university revenue and the number of students who qualify for the exemption through House Bills 3566 and 3572, among others. The two bills were heard and left pending in committee Wednesday.

“It is clear that the burden we are asking our state institutions to bear is unsustainable,” said Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), member of the House Higher Education Committee and author of HB 3572.

The Hazlewood Act is a state-mandated tuition exemption of up to 150 semester credit hours for certain veterans residing in the state. If a veteran does not use the credit hours, they may be transferred to his or her spouse or children.

The two bills heard in the House Higher Education Committee would limit the exemption to those who have continuously lived in the state for eight-years or were born in Texas. they would also offer 120 hours of course credit rather than 150, among other changes.  

“I think all of us … want to continue the Hazlewood exemption in some form or fashion,” said Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugarland), author of HB 3566. “It’s greatly beneficial to our veterans and families, so I think we are looking at a way to do that that is reasonable and cost effective.”

The residency requirement would replace a current rule that requires veterans to have enlisted in Texas to receive Hazlewood benefits. The act is under scrutiny after a U.S. district judge found the act’s enlistment requirement unconstitutional in the case of an individual student.

“If the decision is upheld through the appeals process, it could signify an expansion that would open the door to many veterans,” Zerwas said.

Brantley Starr, deputy attorney general for legal counsel, said the eight-year-residency change may be found constitutional.

Prior to the Hazelwood Legacy Act, which was passed in 2009, family members could receive the exemption if the veteran was deceased or permanently disabled as a result of his or her service. The Legacy Act expanded the exemption to all qualifying children of veterans.

The Legacy Act led to an increase of about $144 million in costs for universities, according to the budget report.

“As much as I think I have earned my benefits — and I’ve done a lot, and I’ve given a lot to earn them — I also understand that they have competing interests, and they have a budget and a balance sheet,” said Dan Hamilton, international relations and global studies junior and a veteran using the Hazlewood exemption.

Hamilton said he thinks that if the state must make cuts to the act, they should prioritize keeping benefits for veterans, not their families.

“As much as it would be nice to pass that benefit down to my kids, I think the obligation the state has is specifically to the veteran,” Hamilton said.

The bills, in their current form, do not remove the legacy program.

According to Zerwas, Texas is one of two states, the other being Illinois, to offer full tuition exemptions to veterans. Zerwas said Texas is the only state to offer full benefits to their children.

At UT there are 41 dependents and 818 legacy students who would be eligible for the exemption without the legacy act using the act, according to the report.

“Veterans are generally eligible for Post-9/11 [GI Bill], so more dependents [and legacy students] end up using Hazlewood than veterans,” said Jeremiah Gunderson, interim director for Student Veteran Services.

Gunderson said he is not sure how and if the Hazlewood Act will change this legislative session, but he and the department will adjust to help student-veterans understand the law moving forward.

“Obviously, different stakeholders within the University have different interests as far as the legislation goes,” Gunderson said. “I’m just here to advocate for veterans and to help our veterans and dependents the best I can.”