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HICKS: Unfortunately, veteran tuition benefits must be cut

March 12, 2011

The Indiana Senate recently dealt with a problem that is emblematic of the terrible slough of despond in which our national and state budgets have descended.

The bill has all the characters of our fiscal crises: well-intentioned legislators, deserving beneficiaries, vocal interest groups and an unsustainable level of spending. How we handle this will set the tone for a thousand more difficult and emotionally draining debates we must have in order to preserve Indiana—and ultimately the United States—as a place of enduring prosperity. Let me explain.

Some time ago, the Indiana Legislature widened a Depression-era state veteran’s benefit that allowed children of grievously disabled Hoosier veterans to attend college in our state tuition-free. As befits Hoosiers, this was the most generous such policy in the nation. The newer rules extended this benefit to the children of any veteran eligible for treatment at a VA clinic. The result was a wide entitlement program that will literally explode in the coming decades, since a third of all combat veterans will meet the disability requirements. It is not sustainable, and the Senate just tightened the requirements.

For me to write this is personally difficult. I come from a family of soldiers for whom wartime death or disability has not escaped a generation in over a century. I, too, am a disabled veteran, and this legislation profoundly alters my family’s college plans. We no longer have free tuition for three children (though it is still about half-price). And my wife, the adult child of a 100-percent disabled veteran, will not receive tuition to graduate school. So mine is not idle pontificating. Few Hoosier households will have lost more financially as a consequence of our Senate’s taking these tough but necessary actions.

This change entails financial hardship and extra years of work. If I can support this legislation, then we must all judge it and other necessary cuts on their merits.

The unsanctimonious truth in this matter and a thousand others like it across the country is that our governments—federal, state and local—have made promises they cannot keep. We are nearly all to blame for these false promises; they felt good. We must now share in their remedy.

Accepting the need for these changes isn’t painless. In financial terms, I am not rich. Soldier, professor and wealthy appear in the same sentence only in this column. Ironically, that makes the matter far more urgent. The only earthly thing of value I can bequeath my children is the richness of opportunity I inherited. As an economist, I know it is at risk. As a father, I want desperately for it to remain intact.

No doubt, this will be hard for my fellow veterans. Of those whom much is given, much must also be asked. We veterans have been given to understand better than any: Sacrifice is not fairly borne, but borne it must be.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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