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House rejects big cuts to veteran education benefit; tax deal advances; grand jury reform

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AUSTIN, Texas — Texas lawmakers on Sunday opted to water down a major attempt to reduce the rising costs of a program offering free college tuition to veterans' children, relenting amid criticism that cutting the benefits too deeply wouldn't be fair to those who sacrifice so much.

Fiscal conservatives have insisted for months that severe rollbacks would be necessary in order to maintain the sustainability of the so-called Hazlewood Act higher education program. But after two hours of heated debate, the House sponsor of the proposed cuts, Rep. John Zerwas, decided his original plan went too far and began working on a compromise measure.

His new proposal passed 137-0 in the early evening, even drawing applause from many in the chamber.

Earlier in the session, several lawmakers proposed bills to wrangle in Hazlewood's costs, which originally offered veterans free college tuition at Texas' public universities. In 2009, it was changed to allow veterans to pass unused college credit hours on to their children.

Texas is home to more than 1.7 million veterans and is the only state to allow veterans to do so.

After the change, costs began spiraling, escalating from $24.7 million in fiscal year 2010 to $169 million last fiscal year. State officials have said that more than half of those who now use the Hazlewood benefit are the children of veterans, not veterans themselves.

Zerwas' original plan sought to restrict veteran eligibility requirements for service and residency, while stipulating that benefits expire. But many of his colleagues balked at the timing of voting on such cuts.

"How hypocritical that on the eve of Memorial Day, the day after our memorial day service, that this Legislature is trying to break its promise to veterans and their families," said El Paso Democratic Rep. Cesar Blanco. He was referring to the House and Senate gathering in a special session Saturday to honor Texans killed in military service.

Amid mounting pressure, Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond, acknowledged that his colleagues wouldn't support changing the Hazlewood Act so drastically: "Timing is everything."

The plan the House approved only insists that beneficiaries live in Texas for at least the past eight years. Zerwas said the bill will adequately address the "looming urgency" of the residency requirement.

It may get a rocky reception, though, in the tea party-controlled Senate, which had approved the original, stricter proposal.


HOUSE OKS HOMESTEAD PROPERTY TAX EXEMPTION INCREASE

The Texas House has preliminarily approved a homestead property tax exemption increase, key to a $3.8 billion tax cut package on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's wish list.

The plan passed 136-0 late Sunday.

On average, it saves Texas homeowners about $120 annually, but only if voters approve the change in a November referendum.

Touted by the Senate, the tax break allows homeowners to exempt $25,000 of their appraisal value from taxation by their local school district.

Angleton Republican Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the House's top budget negotiator, said Sunday that homeowners' savings will be fleeting amid rising home appraisal costs.

The House and Senate spent weeks feuding over the best way to cut taxes. But Abbott announced a deal last week.

Now, portions of that agreement are advancing through the Legislature.


HOUSE ADVANCES PLAN PARTIALLY CONSOLIDATING HEALTH AGENCIES

The Texas House has voted to partially consolidate the state's health and human services bureaucracy, but stopped short of creating a single, super entity as proposed amid a contract scandal.

Lawmakers Sunday approved 137-0 merging three agencies beginning next year.

Being combined are the Health and Human Services Commission, the Department of Aging and Disability Services, and the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

But consolidation of the Department of State Health Services and the Department of Family and Protective Services will only be studied.

Creating a single, super agency was proposed following a multimillion dollar, no-bid contract state health officials signed with an Austin tech firm in 2012.

That proved too ambitious, though.

The Senate already approved the plan, but House changes mean it can't yet clear the Legislature.


HOUSE OKS REFORMING CONTROVERSIAL 'PICK-A-PAL' GRAND JURIES

Texas is on the verge of scrapping its controversial "pick-a-pal" grand jury system, after the House gave final approval to a sweeping overhaul.

The state is currently the only one in America where judge-appointed commissioners nominate prospective jurors, rather than picking randomly selected residents.

The U.S. Supreme Court has criticized the system. But some small-county Texas judges oppose changing it, worried that jury pools may shrink too much.

Without debate Sunday, the House voted 79-59 to approve a bill changing the system, sponsored by Houston Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton.

The proposal already cleared the Senate. But a technical change the House made means it still has some logistical steps before going to Gov. Greg Abbott to be signed into law.

Dutton had expected debate over small-county exceptions, but none came.


ON DECK

Monday is Memorial Day — but you wouldn't know it in the Texas Legislature. Both chambers will be convening, and tackling long to-do lists.


QUOTE OF THE DAY

"As Longhorns, we are not always great at football, but it is our god given birthright that we are good at baseball" — Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, referencing a win Sunday that secured the University of Texas' baseball team's spot in the Big 12 Championship

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