"We've had some inconsistencies of numbers, and if we've got better numbers, then we know what the costs are," said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, citing the different ways universities self-report participants. "We're having difficulty getting the true cost."
The Hazlewood Act, which gives free tuition to Texas veterans, was established after World War I. In 2009, Van de Putte helped expand those benefits with the Hazlewood Legacy Act, which allows veterans to transfer their unused exempted credit hours, up to 150, to their spouses or children. No state money was appropriated to pay for it, requiring universities to absorb the cost.
Van de Putte, who chairs the veterans affairs committee, asked chancellors whether they were overestimating the price tag of Hazlewood by adding extra student fees to the cost. Hazlewood only requires universities to waive tuition and certain fees, but those fees remain undefined.
"I think what the Legislature thinks is that you're having to pay for all the costs," Van de Putte said. "Are you charging, at your universities, general deposit fees? Are you picking up things you shouldn't be picking up?"
Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa of the University of Texas System said Hazlewood exemption costs for the system grew from $9 billion in 2010 to $28.5 billion in 2012.
"This is another opportunity where, if we partner together, we can serve our veterans even more," Cigarroa said.
The policies would be tweaked by two bills filed by Van de Putte on Tuesday. Senate Bill 1158 reassigns oversight of the Hazlewood Act from the Higher Education Coordinating Board to the Texas Veterans Commission and creates veteran college resource counselors. SB 1159 clarifies that the age cap of 25 for dependents to receive the benefits would not extend to dependents of veterans who are killed in action or who are 100 percent disabled.
At the hearing, Chancellor Kent Hance of the Texas Tech University System said he envisioned three funding options for the program: fully financing the program, raising tuition at universities to fund the program or prioritizing recipients based on level of combat or injury.
Van de Putte rejected the third option in an interview following the hearing.
"Service members don't know if they're going to be deployed or not, but they have taken that risk and their families take that risk any time they're in service," Van de Putte said. "To only give it for combat veterans I think that is an insult to any service member."
Lawmakers are currently formulating a two-year budget, but the committee members gave no indication at the hearing as to whether they would support fully funding the program.
Van de Putte also chastised higher education commissioners for their poor rates of employing veterans and veteran businesses within the university systems.
"If we have 1.7 million veterans in the state .... but the [biggest] university only has 2 percent of your total employment are veterans," Van de Putte said. "Look at your veteran employment numbers on your campus. They are horrible, really horrible."
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