AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas is aiming to incentivize new peace officers to join departments around the state by implementing a student loan assistance repayment program.

Officers who join Texas departments after Sept. 1, 2019, become full-time employees, stay employed for at least one year, and have earned at least 60 semester credit hours at a higher education institution before the person’s initial employment as a peace officer, are eligible to apply for student loan repayment assistance through a new state program.

State lawmakers discussed the legislation, Senate Bill 16, at a meeting of the Texas House Higher Education committee on Tuesday.

“One of the most important things we do in government is protect our people,” State Rep. Lynn Stucky, R- Denton, vice chair of the committee and author of the House version of the bill, said.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is tasked with establishing and administering the program. The board’s deputy assistant commissioner for student financial aid, Charles Contéro-Puls, complimented the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing law enforcement standards, for working alongside the board to streamline guidance for the program.

“TCOLE has been very helpful as we have sought to understand the peace officer structure and the 35 different categories of peace officer that are defined in statute, all of whom qualify for this program,” Contéro-Puls said.

“This is a recruiting tool,” Jennifer Szimanski, public affairs coordinator with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), said. “This was designed because nationwide, really, but definitely in Texas, we’re having problems recruiting police officers.”

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Szimanski said, adding that retention is emerging as an equal problem to recruiting.

Contéro-Puls updated lawmakers on the timeline for implementation. After legislators passed the measure last spring, the board’s rules were approved in October and took effect in December. The website with application information went live in January, and the board plans to begin outreach to departments and schools in April, Contéro-Puls said. Applications will be available beginning in Sept., with funds distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Lawmakers funded $4 million to distribute starting in 2021. Contéro-Puls estimated over 12,000 new peace officers earning their licenses each year and half of students graduating Texas institutions with some form of debt, the money would run dry quickly.

“We’re estimating that well over the 1,000 we can fund in this first year will apply for the program,” Contéro-Puls mentioned.

Beyond the first cohort of graduates, there’s uncertainty about continued financial support.

“This first year of the program is going to be a very defining year in terms of future demand,” Contéro-Puls stated.

“If we want to bring in a new class every year over the course of five years, we’ll be looking at a program that would require $20 million in funding per year to fund 1,000 individuals at the maximum level,” he explained.

Law enforcement association leaders hope lawmakers can find a way to broaden the program for current active officers who started their careers before Sept. 1, 2019.

“In order to retain officers, we would like to go back and get this to apply to current peace officer,” Szimanski said. “So anyone prior to Sept. 1 would also be eligible for the same type of benefit.”

Cedar Park Police Officer Jacqueline Quiles likes the sound of that. She joined the department three years ago, and is taking classes at Concordia University to get a degree in pre-med with a criminology minor.

“I’m in school, my husband’s in school,” she said. Quiles has $51,000 in student loans, plus $4,000 in interest to pay back.

“It’s definitely stressful in being able to try to figure out ‘Hey, if I make this payment on my student loan while I’m still in school, it’s going to lower my interest,’ and trying to do all the math while still trying to maintain driving my patrol car and dealing with a trainee and things like that,” Quiles said.

“I think it would be an overall benefit,” Quiles said.

“You have these officers that come from these really small towns, they don’t make as much money this will give them a very big benefit to finish their degrees try to move on into different agencies and things like that,” she added. “It’ll help them get further on within their career.”

The state’s peace officer tuition exemption program was brought up in Tuesday’s meeting, which provides tuition assistance to peace officers enrolled in undergraduate criminal justice or law enforcement courses, but it was pointed out that the exemption does not apply to all courses and educational institutions.