AUSTIN — Texas veterans and their children would see their higher education benefits sliced significantly under a plan heading to the Senate floor.
Tuition exemption costs under the so-called Hazlewood Exemption have skyrocketed from $24.7 million in fiscal year 2010 to $169 million in fiscal year 2014. Texas’ higher education institutions shoulder the bulk of those costs.
A plan by Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell, the Senate’s most senior military veteran, to address the financial shortfalls passed out of committee Wednesday, but not without criticism.
The bill would require beneficiaries to live in Texas for eight years and would cut free tuition down from 150 hours to 120 hours. It also limits the number of hours a veteran may pass on to a child to 60. The benefits would all expire 15 years after the veteran left military service.
“I’m concerned honestly that our veterans and their families may end up feeling betrayed by our actions if we pass this,” said San Antonio Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez, who cast the sole “nay” in the 5-1 vote Wednesday.
Birdwell, who served more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, told Menendez he was “bristled” by the thought of betraying veterans.
“No one ever wants to bring something like this forward,” Birdwell said. “This was my idea of what I thought was the right thing to do.”
Texas has the second-highest veteran population in the country, at 1.7 million.
The bulk of the Hazlewood Exemption’s costs are caused by a change to state law in 2011 that allowed veterans to pass on unused tuition hours to their children. State officials have said veterans’ children now account for more than half of Hazlewood recipients.
Jim Brennan, legislative director for the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, said he and the 6,000 veterans his organizations represent oppose Birdwell’s bill. So do the 78,000 members of the American Legion of Texas, said vice commander John McKinney.
“Veterans issues do not exist in a vacuum,” Brennan said, adding that it’s often families who bear more of a burden when a soldier is deployed.
NEW PROSECUTORS PICKED IN PAXTON PROBE
If any criminal charges are brought against Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is under investigation over an admitted securities violation, the case won’t be in the hands of his longtime friend.
A state district judge has picked two Houston attorneys to take over the case against Paxton, whose first months as chief lawyer in Texas has been shadowed by allegations that he broke the law. His spokesman has denounced the accusations as outrageous.
The replacement prosecutors were appointed after Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis, a friend and former business partner of Paxton, recused himself earlier this week amid pressure that he had a conflict of interest.
Paxton, a former state senator, was fined $1,000 by state regulators last year for investment advising without registering.
“Both of us have been special prosecutors on high-profile matters, and are keenly aware of our oaths ‘not to convict, but to see that justice is done,” said Brian Wice, one of the appointed prosecutors, in a statement Wednesday. He said their investigation would be full and fair and “without regard to partisan politics.”
Willis asked the Texas Rangers to investigate the Paxton case before stepping down, and has shot back at criticism that he had slow-played the matter.
RED LIGHT CAMERA BAN MAY BE COMING
Texas could put red light cameras in the rearview mirror under a bill that has cleared the Texas Senate.
Republican Sen. Bob Hall said Wednesday that red light cameras “have failed miserably” before his bill was sent over to the House. Dozens of Texas cities have contracted companies to install red light cameras, which generate millions in revenue for municipalities.
The companies photograph vehicles that run red lights, and then send the vehicle owner a $75 ticket.
Texas lawmakers now want to prohibit a camera system on anything other than toll roads. Hall said studies show the devices don’t improve overall traffic safety as advertised. Also, since ticketed drivers can’t confront their accusers, Hall said the cameras violate citizens’ due process rights.
LIBEL PROTECTIONS FOR JOURNALISTS ADVANCE
The Texas Senate has unanimously approved a measure to further shield journalists from libel lawsuits if they accurately report a whistleblower’s allegations that turn out to be false.
The Wednesday vote came after weeks of negotiations between organizations that represent trial lawyers and reporters.
The bill’s author, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, said all parties are now in agreement that “accuracy in reporting is a defense to libel.”