Texas universities can deny free tuition to veterans who gained state residency only after enlisting in the military, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday — a decision that could ease some, but not all, concerns about a prominent benefit program’s spiraling costs.
The case centered on Texas’ 93-year-old Hazlewood program, which provides free tuition for veterans from Texas who attend public universities in the state, asking how widely the program applied.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a state requirement that beneficiaries of the program live in Texas when they enlist in the military.
Keith Harris, honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 2000, brought the case in 2014 while studying law at the University of Houston.
Harris — now in his third year at the law school — has been a resident of Texas since 2004. But he was denied benefits under the Hazelwood program because was a Georgian when he enlisted back in 1996 as an 18-year-old.
In his lawsuit, Harris argued that the residency rules violated his constitutional rights to equal protection under the law and to travel from one state to another.
On Thursday, the appeals panel sided with the state, overturning a lower court’s ruling.
“Texas has presented a rational basis for its residency-at-enlistment requirement,” the decision said, adding that the requirement “does not infringe Harris’s right to travel.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton cheered the ruling. "Today’s ruling allows Texas to exercise its sovereign right to encourage Texas students to finish high school, volunteer for military service, and bring their skills back to Texas to pursue higher education," the Republican said. “This win is an affirmation of the Texas Legislature’s authority to establish state policy, as well as a win for taxpayers and veterans.”
If the decision stands, it could ease — or at least not exacerbate — anxieties about Hazlewood’s soaring price tag.
Lawmakers expanded the program in 2009 to allow veterans to pass on unused tuition hours to a dependent child. That triggered a dramatic spike in costs, from around $24 million to $169 million. That number could reach $380 million by 2019, the Legislative Budget Board has estimated.
Universities bear the brunt of those costs and have pleaded for relief.
When a U.S. district judge sided with Harris in early 2015 that only fueled the unease.
The budget reality has put some lawmakers in a sticky political situation — forcing them to contemplate rolling back a program popular with veterans.
So far, the legislature hasn't acted.
Legislation aiming to curb the costs fell apart during the 2015 session. Democrats had rallied against the effort.
This story was produced by the Texas Tribune.