With Texas’ public universities facing a sizable and escalating price tag, the state attorney general’s office said Tuesday it plans to appeal a recent federal court ruling that struck down a provision in state law that says military veterans — and their families — may receive free tuition as long as they enlisted while living in the state.
Asked for an update on the lawsuit by Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, First Assistant Attorney General Chip Roy told the budget-writing panel Tuesday that the state will appeal a ruling last month by U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr.
In his decision, Werlein said the University of Houston could not deny benefits under the Texas Hazlewood Act to plaintiff Keith Harris just because he had enlisted in the Army while living in Georgia.
Last week, Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the final outcome will “obviously” have an impact on the two-year state budget currently under development.
Hazlewood cost the state’s public universities $169 million last year to cover nearly 40,000 students, according to the Legislative Budget Board. (The state, however, has only picked up about $15 million of the tab each year).
The cost is projected to reach $379.1 million by 2019, thanks mostly to a 2009 amendment to Hazlewood that allows veterans to pass on tuition benefits to their children.
On Tuesday, Roy said “the fact is we don’t know the cost” of the program in the future. He also said the ruling was in “direct conflict” with the aim of Hazlewood.
“The Hazlewood Act was designed to provide two things,” he said. “First, an additional incentive to kids in Texas to join the military after high school. Second, encouragement to return to Texas after service to pursue their education.”
The lawsuit poses an interesting conundrum for the state’s Republican leaders, who are eager to assist veterans but also must weigh the associated cost.