John Zerwas

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

Last fiscal year, UT excused about $9.7 million in tuition revenue for 1,034 student veterans and their families as part of the Texas Hazlewood Act tuition exemption, according to a Legislative Budget Board report. 

State lawmakers are working to reduce losses to university revenue and the number of students who qualify for the exemption through House Bills 3566 and 3572, among others. The two bills were heard and left pending in committee Wednesday.

“It is clear that the burden we are asking our state institutions to bear is unsustainable,” said Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), member of the House Higher Education Committee and author of HB 3572.

The Hazlewood Act is a state-mandated tuition exemption of up to 150 semester credit hours for certain veterans residing in the state. If a veteran does not use the credit hours, they may be transferred to his or her spouse or children.

The two bills heard in the House Higher Education Committee would limit the exemption to those who have continuously lived in the state for eight-years or were born in Texas. they would also offer 120 hours of course credit rather than 150, among other changes.  

“I think all of us … want to continue the Hazlewood exemption in some form or fashion,” said Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugarland), author of HB 3566. “It’s greatly beneficial to our veterans and families, so I think we are looking at a way to do that that is reasonable and cost effective.”

The residency requirement would replace a current rule that requires veterans to have enlisted in Texas to receive Hazlewood benefits. The act is under scrutiny after a U.S. district judge found the act’s enlistment requirement unconstitutional in the case of an individual student.

“If the decision is upheld through the appeals process, it could signify an expansion that would open the door to many veterans,” Zerwas said.

Brantley Starr, deputy attorney general for legal counsel, said the eight-year-residency change may be found constitutional.

Prior to the Hazelwood Legacy Act, which was passed in 2009, family members could receive the exemption if the veteran was deceased or permanently disabled as a result of his or her service. The Legacy Act expanded the exemption to all qualifying children of veterans.

The Legacy Act led to an increase of about $144 million in costs for universities, according to the budget report.

“As much as I think I have earned my benefits — and I’ve done a lot, and I’ve given a lot to earn them — I also understand that they have competing interests, and they have a budget and a balance sheet,” said Dan Hamilton, international relations and global studies junior and a veteran using the Hazlewood exemption.

Hamilton said he thinks that if the state must make cuts to the act, they should prioritize keeping benefits for veterans, not their families.

“As much as it would be nice to pass that benefit down to my kids, I think the obligation the state has is specifically to the veteran,” Hamilton said.

The bills, in their current form, do not remove the legacy program.

According to Zerwas, Texas is one of two states, the other being Illinois, to offer full tuition exemptions to veterans. Zerwas said Texas is the only state to offer full benefits to their children.

At UT there are 41 dependents and 818 legacy students who would be eligible for the exemption without the legacy act using the act, according to the report.

“Veterans are generally eligible for Post-9/11 [GI Bill], so more dependents [and legacy students] end up using Hazlewood than veterans,” said Jeremiah Gunderson, interim director for Student Veteran Services.

Gunderson said he is not sure how and if the Hazlewood Act will change this legislative session, but he and the department will adjust to help student-veterans understand the law moving forward.

“Obviously, different stakeholders within the University have different interests as far as the legislation goes,” Gunderson said. “I’m just here to advocate for veterans and to help our veterans and dependents the best I can.”

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

As last-minute bills rush in before the 6:00 p.m. filing deadline Friday, House and Senate committee chairs said they consider higher education funding to be this session’s legislative priority.

Members are allowed to file bills through the first 60 days of the legislative session. After those 60 days are up, the session becomes more fast-paced, Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) said. Bills go in and out of committees and can come up for a vote on the Senate or House floors.

Zerwas, who is chair of the House higher education committee, said there is typically an increase in the number of bills filed in the legislature as the deadline nears. 

“The deadline always brings a flurry of activity,” Zerwas said. “There are interest groups out there that realize, all of the sudden, that they don’t have anything and they come in desperately asking to get something in.” 

While the number of bills filed is increasing, Zerwas said he does not anticipate the filing of any major new pieces of legislation.  

“I think we have seen most everything that is kind of high-profile or a high-priority issue among the members of the house,” Zerwas said. 

Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) said his committee is not looking to take on any more higher education bills.

“We pretty much have everything we can do a good job on this legislative session,” Seliger said. “You have to keep in mind there are bills that we have filed, and there will be a good number of bills that we will carry once they pass the House of Representatives.” 

One of the House committee’s goals, the Hazlewood Act, addresses tuition exemptions for state military veterans. At the end of January, a U.S. district court judge ruled that veterans who served in the military as non-Texas residents would be eligible for the tuition exemptions available to native Texas veterans if they established residency in the state.

Other priority initiatives for the House committee include improving student graduation rates, which will save students money in the long-term, Zerwas said. Some proposed methods include making it easier for students to get college credit through transfer courses and lowering the bar for Advanced Placement scores acceptable for credit.

Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), vice chair of the House Higher Education Committee, said some of the most publicized issues the legislature is facing — the renewal of the Texas Dream Act and Campus Carry — will not be discussed within the higher education committee, since they have such broad implications relevant to a number of other committees. 

“[The speaker of the house makes] determinations, probably from a variety of standpoints, [about which committee hears which bill] … but there are also, what you could call political reasons, and certainly more global reasons that it might go elsewhere,” Howard said.

Howard said she cannot fully predict whether the Campus Carry bill or Dream Act bill will pass at this point.

According to Seliger, Senate priorities include allocating tuition revenue bonds, which are bonds to build buildings that are funded partially from the state and partially from tuition, as well as research funding.

Seliger said, to a certain extent, the committee receives their priorities and sets them according to the needs voiced by universities. 

“The priorities, the importance is set by the people in higher education for whom we make laws and policies, as well as legislative appropriations,” Seliger said.

bill is sitting in the Texas House right now that would require all state public schools to accept a minimum score of 3 on an Advanced Placement exam for college credit. Advanced Placement allows high school students to take college-level classes and exams for college credit. 

The legislation, introduced by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, would change the system currently in place at the University, where 4's and 5's are needed to gain credit for a majority of exams. We generally support this bill, but only if certain precautions are taken. 
The University stresses the importance of graduating in four years to its students, and accepting 3's on all AP exams would certainly help that process. The University accepts 3's for 12 of the AP exams, 4's for 17 more and only 2 exams need to be 5's. A 2 on the German Language and Culture AP Exam counts for UT credit. However, we don't think that all 3's should be accepted. 

Mellanie Patterson, Student Testing Services coordinator for the University, is concerned a score of 3 will not prepare students for the rigors of their course sequences.  

"If they are scoring a 1 or 3, in some instances, they are not very prepared," Patterson said.  

Instead, we think that 3's should be accepted for courses that are either University core requirements outside their major or do not relate specifically to a student's field of study. A biology or pre-med student should not be allowed to skip UT biology courses with just a 3, but they should be able to easily test out of American History courses, for example, if they so choose. If a student changes majors, we believe they should have to change their AP credit allowances, too. 

Overall, the acceptance of a score of 3 on AP exams across the board for credit at UT would be beneficial to its students. However, it would be important for the University to make sure students use this privilege wisely and don't abuse it. 

We think that this bill should pass and be implemented in a manner that wouldn't compromise the education of students.

Straus' committee picks show his continued pragmatism

The Texas Legislature is an ironic place. Historically, U.S. governments have been set up that are composed of a pragmatic upper house (Senate) and a radical lower house (House of Representatives).  

In Texas, the opposite is true. Nowhere has that become clearer than in the way the leaders of the two respective chambers — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate and Speaker Joe Straus in the House — have selected the composition and heads of pertinent committees, the lifeblood of legislatures in the modern era. 

Patrick, a bombastic right-wing activist elected last year, quickly made good on his promise to slash the number of committees and boot most all of the Democratic chairs from power. Straus, on the other hand, elected by the House's members in bipartisan fashion, largely retained the pervasiveness of Democratic influence in the lower house. Furthermore, for those Republicans selected to lead committees, many moderates received the most plum assignments

State Representative John Zerwas, R-Richmond, for example, was chosen to lead the House Higher Education Committee. As most media sources quickly noted, Zerwas has recently been a supporter of the Texas Dream Act, which grants in-state tuition at state universities such as this one to undocumented immigrants. State Representative John Otto, R-Dayton, meanwhile, was selected as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which is tasked with the enviable position of writing the state's budget. In a recent analysis by Rice University, Otto was noted as the fifth most liberal Republican in the legislature while Zerwas was rated the third . 

Roughly a third of committees will be headed by Democrats, mirroring the proportion of the House itself occupied by the minority party. Most of these committees are rather insignificant, but others are invaluable. The transportation committee will be chaired by state Representative Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. State Representative Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the second-longest serving member of the legislature, will continue at the helm of Local & Consent Calendars, one of the most powerful committees under the dome. 

The most zealous conservatives, specifically the ones who voted against Straus last month for speaker, were unsurprisingly punished. Special Purposes Districts Committee immediately comes to mind. 

In continuing his pragmatic and bipartisan approach to House administration, Straus has sent a message back to Patrick: The House will continue being a bastion of real government solutions to problems and not just a breeding ground for right-wing pipe dreams, no matter what the Senate descends into.  

Horwitz is the Senior Associate Editor.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, (right) speaks on a panel discussing the Affordable Care Act at KUT Studios on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

With enrollment for coverage under the Affordable Care Act now open for 2015, four panelists at KUT Studios in the Belo Center for New Media on Tuesday discussed the impact of the act so far.

The panel included State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton; Bee Moorhead of Texas Impact; Sam Richardson, assistant professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs; and Austin American-Statesman reporter Tim Eaton. The group examined the impact the health care act had on Texas communities during its first year and discussed what they hope to see in the next session.

According to Zerwas, polling shows people are not happy with what has happened as a result of the act. 

“In general, the Affordable Care Act is not well received by Americans across the country and certainly in Texas, also,” Zerwas said. “If you talk to most people about it, they don’t like what it does. … More people are paying more for their insurance coverage as a consequence of the health care reform act and [are] getting less options.”

Richardson said individuals with fewer options may be uninformed.

“For those who don’t fall into the Medicaid gap, they typically get very cheap insurance coverage,” Richardson said. “For people who qualify for subsidies under the federal marketplace, they can find plans … for $40 a month [to] $60 a month. We see a lot of people able to get coverage much more cheaply.”

Zerwas said he would like to see officials come together next session to help individuals with no coverage. 

“My hope is that, through this period of time, there has been more conversations with the members of the legislature, a better understanding of what this could do for their community in particular, and that we come back and have a conversation that is less tainted by politics and is more about trying to solve a solution,” Zerwas said. “I don’t care if it’s the ‘John Zerwas Texas’ solution or if it’s somebody else’s plan — we have a million to a million-and-a-half people that fall into a gap.”

Voters in Texas were not educated on what their legislatures were saying about the act, according to Moorhead.  

“This time around, one of the things that advocates are committed [for] legislatures to do is to work with them and to work with their constituents to make sure people at least understand, so that, if a legislature takes the step of saying, ‘I want to do that right thing for my state,’ that their constituents are really clear that they are doing the right thing for their state,” Moorhead said.