Facing strong opposition from veterans, the chairman of the Texas House Higher Education Committee backed away from his bill that would have significantly restricted their access to free college tuition.

“When I filed this bill, it started off as a bill that was going way too far in addressing a problem that we didn’t have enough information on,” state Rep. J. M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, conceded late Thursday.

Initially, HB 3766 would have required veterans to serve at least four years in the military to be eligible for the Hazlewood program, which pays for tuition and most fees at public institutions of higher education for up to 150 hours. Currently, veterans need to have served a minimum of only 181 days to be eligible.

The bill also would have required veterans to take advantage of the program no later than 15 years after the veteran’s honorable discharge. Currently, there is no time limit. Imposing a time limit could affect the legacy part of the Hazlewood program, which allows qualified veterans to assign unused hours to their children.

Those limitations raised the ire of many veterans, who told Lozano what they thought in no uncertain terms.

Lozano, who is in his fourth legislative session, said this is the first time he’s offered a bill that was “incredibly contentious” from the start.

“I learned something I’ll never forget,” he said. “I’ll readily admit that we don’t know everything and we learn every single day.”

When he presented the bill at the hearing, Lozano offered a committee substitute that eliminated the two controversial limitations and instead put in a requirement that veterans complete the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) to be eligible for the Hazlewood program. It also would transfer the program’s administration from the Texas Veterans Commission to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The proposal aimed to bring savings to universities as they face a rising cost to fund the program, totaling $169 million in tuition revenue in 2014.

But the changes still upset veterans, who lined up to testify against the committee substitute, too.

Dan West, who spent 12 years in the U.S Marine Corps, said there is a trust issue between the veterans and some state agencies. He disagreed with putting the program under the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“We trust Texas Veterans Commission because it’s run by veterans. I got post traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “You get me on the phone with someone that doesn’t know how to handle someone when they get agitated, you got no customer service. (The Texas Veterans Commision) hires veterans who understand the guys they’re dealing with.”

Lozano said transitioning the program to the board would help the state collect data for future legislation and assess the amount of service time of Hazlewood program recipients.

That didn’t sell John McKinney, legislative chair for the Department of Texas of the American Legion. He said he has worked 40 years in veterans’ programs, and that the best way to help veterans is to avoid the bureaucracy of state agencies.

“I discovered that if you have veterans helping veterans, it was a win win for the state and the veterans,” McKinney said.

Disappointed by the reaction, Lozano decided to withdraw his committee substitute at the end of the hearing and said he would consider creating another substitute that would address the veterans’ concerns.

“We came up with a bill that honestly doesn’t even touch Hazlewood at all,” Lozano said, referring to the substitute he presented Thursday night. “I owe them (veterans) everything. When I realized so many people would testify against this committee substitute, it broke my heart.”

This article was published in the San Antonio Express-News May 1, 2017. 

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