Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made a visit in late April to Fort Worth, bringing a chief theme of his campaign with him: student loan forgiveness. Texas is second in the country in total student loan debt, and the average American is indebted roughly $22,000 from student loans — nearly four times the average credit card debt per American.
The student loan issue has proved to be an important one for many voters, so some politicians are scrambling to find ways to address high tuition costs and tuition assistance before election season rolls around once again.
In Texas, Section 54.341. of the Education Code implements a loan exemption program for veterans that fit its qualifications. The exemption applies to tuition, dues, and fees but does not include room & board costs or other costs of living.
This is known as the Hazlewood Act.
Implemented in 1923 for veterans of the first World War, the Hazlewood Act has tapered Texas veteran’s education costs for nearly a century.
Since its inception, the code has been updated to include veterans of other wars and even family members of veterans who could not attend college as a result of their injuries, or deaths, sustained during combat. The Hazlewood Legacy Act in 2009 allowed veteran’s unused credits to be transferred to their children. The code exempts up to 150 credit hours from tuition and other costs for qualified students.
With the burgeoning costs of tuition, the burden shouldered by universities and the state is far outpacing the inflation set in code when the policy was first established. Lawmakers have sought various ways to address this problem.
In 2015, Texas lost a federal suit which ruled the state could not deny Hazlewood benefits to veterans currently residing in the state, but who did not reside in Texas at the time of enlistment. A year later, the decision was overturned.
Governor Abbott made funding the Hazlewood program a priority of his 2014 education plan.
For the current 2018-2019 biennium, the legislature appropriated over $390 million for the Hazlewood program.
In 2015, Senate Republicans offered up a different kind of solution. Senator Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) introduced SB 1735 as a means of curbing the growth of the program in an effort to stave off potential cost increases while also honoring the original intent of the legislation.
Birdwell was in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and was severely injured during the attack, making him eligible for Hazlewood benefits after his time of service.
The Birdwell bill sought to rein in some of the Hazlewood eligibility criteria like establishing an eight-year residency requirement in the state for non-native Texan veterans to qualify — a provision directly addressing the federal suit. It also would have established a six-year service requirement to be eligible for the Hazlewood Legacy benefits. The bill passed both houses but did not make it out of conference committee in the 84th Legislature.
This year, a bill expanding Hazlewood’s benefits passed out of the same chamber that tried to curtail it just four years earlier. SB 16, authored by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), extends the same benefits of the Hazlewood Act to “peace officers,” or law enforcement — but establishes some of its own requirements like four years of previous service.
SB 16 passed the Senate in a unanimous vote on April 16. It was substituted by a House version.
The substitute bill was reported favorably by the House Higher Education Committee on May 2, to which it was assigned on April 17. And with National Police Week starting today, it’s possible additional activity related to Hazlewood’s expansion could soon occur in the Legislature.
Hancock said the bill is “designed as a useful recruitment and retention tool for police departments and should be a real financial help to the heroes who serve our communities on a daily basis.”
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said in a statement following its passage through the Senate, “It will help repay student loans for officers who choose to serve in local law enforcement post-graduation.”
The effort to expand the Hazlewood program comes as the overall Texas budget continues to balloon. Since 2000, expenditures have increased over 110 percent. Ahead of the 2020-2021 biennium, the projected budget is estimated to hit close to $250 billion — a 15 percent increase from the 2018-2019 biennium.
As eligibility criteria and program expansions are added to longstanding taxpayer-backed programs like Hazlewood, Texas lawmakers in future sessions may have to field questions about additional populations who want to receive generous student loan arrangements.
And in a budgetary reality where spending increases will inevitably necessitate increased taxation or spending offsets to pay for these programs and their expansions, lawmakers may find today’s unanimous vote dreams to be tomorrow’s political and policy nightmares.
And as the Hazlewood program proves, a lot can change in just a few short years.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.