This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on June 9, 2015.

In January, U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein ruled that the University of Houston could not deny Keith Harris, a Texas resident of 10 years who enlisted while a resident of Georgia, access to Texas’ free-college-for-veterans program.

Werlein’s decision opened the floodgates for non-Texan veterans to cash in on Texas’s 92-year-old Hazlewood program, the most generous program of its kind in the nation. The Texas Veterans Commission warned that the ruling will raise the cost of Hazlewood from $169 million to $2 billion annually if immediate changes are not made.

Legislators soon realized that even after patching the holes exposed by Werlein’s ruling, the cost of Hazlewood will skyrocket in coming years, to $379 million by 2019.

Taxpayers cover only $15 million of the program’s annual cost; the state makes universities pay the rest. Universities typically respond with a tuition-rate hike that has non-Hazlewood students paying an additional $250-450 annually so that students in the program can attend school for free.

Legislators saw these many issues, and yet decided to run down the clock until it was too late to act. Rousing rhetoric on the House floor the day before Memorial Day declared the Legislature’s unflagging support for veterans and their education and all but ended hope for reforming Hazlewood this session.

But the Hazlewood debate was never about veterans’ education at all: The reforms concern educating their children.

Among the Hazlewood reform ideas debated by the legislature, none involved cutting free tuition for veterans. Instead, a magnifying glass has been turned on the 2009 Hazlewood Legacy Act, which enables Texas veterans to pass unused Hazlewood credits onto a dependent.

The Legacy Act was intended as a modest addition to Hazlewood. It has become the most expensive, and fastest-growing, part of the entire program.

Last year, legacies accounted for almost two-thirds (65.9 percent) of Hazlewood spending, or $111.3 million of $169 million total. Bear in mind that spouses and dependents of veterans killed in action, missing in action, or 100 percent disabled from a service-related injury have been covered by the program for decades and are not considered legacies.

Such escalating costs defy a recent trend in Texas toward more cost-effective higher education for veterans.

Which, returning to Hazlewood, is what makes the Legacy Act’s domination of the program’s budget especially troubling.

Unlike their parents, Hazlewood legacy students have no military experience that can be converted into college credit. Since the legacy provision extends only to dependents 25 and younger, legacies hail predominantly from a demographic that prefers the traditional “college experience,” which is more costly and time-consuming.

Moving forward, Judge Werlein has provided the catalyst for a much-needed conversation about the sustainability of sending veterans’ children to school on the backs of fellow students whose parents were not in the military.

Hazlewood’s costs will continue to soar. Cash-strapped college students will still be made to foot most of the bill.

So when Hazlewood reform comes up again in 2017, remember that legacies — and the nonlegacy students who pay for their “free” education — are who we are really talking about. When it comes to education benefits for veterans themselves, Texas will always innovate but will never cut and run.

McGuire is a policy analyst with the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.