Cutting free tuition for vets?

BROWNSVILLE — How much is a veteran’s life worth?

To Director Salvador J. Castillo of the Cameron County Veterans Services Office, this is the real question people should ask regarding House Bill 3766, which aims to shrink veterans’ education benefits under the Hazlewood Act.

The legislation, proposed by Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, will introduce two changes to the program.

Currently, the program requires a veteran to serve only 180 days to receive 150 college credit hours. Lozano’s bill would place a 15-year expiration date on those hours and increase the service requirement to four years.

The Hazlewood Act is a state of Texas benefit that provides qualified veterans, spouses and dependent children with an education benefit of up to 150 hours of tuition exemption, including most fee charges, at public institutions of higher education in Texas.

Castillo calls Lozano’s bill an insult to veterans and their families.

“What price would you put on liberty, justice and the freedom that all our veterans have invested in?” Castillo said.

“I’ve seen people come into my office with their children, whose husbands served less than three years. But that individual was so tormented by combat that he hanged himself, and now those children won’t get those benefits.”

If the proposal passes, children — the primary beneficiaries of the program — will not be able to use their veteran parent’s credit hours unless they are age 6 or older.

The majority of people who serve are ages 18 to 24, Castillo said.

The cost to universities can be steep, however.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley spokesman Patrick Gonzales said the university paid out just over $2 million in tuition for 177 veterans and 626 veteran dependents this spring.

UTRGV President Guy Bailey declined to comment on the bill, stating he does not comment on pending litigation.

Cameron County commissioners have taken an official stance against the legislation. They passed a resolution at the Commissioners Court meeting last Tuesday morning.

County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. considers House Bill 3766 a “sad use of legislative resources.”

“Hopefully, elected leaders throughout the state will let their objections be heard, and at the bare minimum, we continue to support our veterans through these types of efforts,” Treviño said. “(The Hazlewood Act) is an example of legislation that has been extremely positive and productive.”

Treviño understands the cost to universities, but he hopes they continue to find the means to keep supporting the Hazlewood Act.

Castillo said it is a matter of priorities. Instead of investing in sports, why not increase the number of students that can go to college?

A 2016 study conducted by the Texas Tribune stated that 34.5 percent of Cameron County’s residents are poor. It has the highest child poverty rate in Texas: 47 percent.

“Look at it as an investment for the future of our state and nation. From our county’s perspective, we are one of the poorest in the nation, so we benefit from that act so much that if it is taken away, it will hurt our economy in the future,” Castillo said.