Honorable Few – Capt. J.J. Harris

Marine Corps League Detachment #1302

Virginia Senate fails to pass bill on military tuition program

For the second time this summer, the Virginia Senate returned to Richmond and failed to pass a bill most General Assembly members and many military families want to see advance.

Another five hours at the Capitol Monday produced no breakthroughs in the slow-burning controversy over the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program (VMSDEP), which provides tuition-free college to spouses and children of military members killed or disabled as a result of their service.

Virginia education program cuts for military families spark backlash

For weeks, military families and advocates for veterans have been calling for the immediate reversal of cost-cutting measures aimed at VMSDEP that the legislature and Gov. Glenn Youngkin approved earlier this year. On Friday, the House of Delegates unanimously approved the full repeal bill the families support.

After watching Monday’s Senate session devolve into multi-directional bickering that produced nothing, military families described Virginia’s halls of power as a place where rampant egos have gotten in the way of listening to regular people.

“We are living a political nightmare,” said Kayla Owen, a Fredericksburg-area military spouse leading Friends of VMSDEP, the main advocacy group pushing for the program’s restoration.

The lack of action means the recently approved changes to the VMSDEP program won’t be rolled back under the deadline policymakers have been working toward for weeks. Monday was the official beginning of the state’s fiscal year, which meant the new budget containing the VMSDEP reforms went into effect.

The new changes, which don’t apply to current VMSDEP recipients but will apply to anyone attempting to begin using the program in the future, impose a stricter Virginia residency requirement, prevent the waivers from being used for advanced degrees or a second undergraduate degree and require participants to first pursue other forms of financial aid.

On Monday, the Senate’s Democratic leaders battled Youngkin’s administration, the Democratic-led House and Senate Republicans. At the end of the day, Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, portrayed his caucus as the only group in the mix making a serious effort to preserve VMSDEP while reining in its ballooning costs. He accused others of playing politics.

The Friends of VMSDEP group said that, as far as it’s concerned, the blame for the current situation lies squarely with Surovell and Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth.

Lucas and Surovell haven’t gotten on board with proposals to fully repeal the VMSDEP changes. Instead, they’ve offered a series of alternate proposals, none of which have passed their own chamber.

The latest proposal Senate Democrats unveiled Monday would have provided $45 million in new funding to offset VMSDEP’s growing financial impact on the state’s public colleges and universities, which legislative analysts say have grown from about $19 million in 2019 to more than $65 million in 2023. Their offer came close to fully repealing the stricter eligibility rules imposed earlier this year, but preserved one modest reform that would’ve required VMSDEP participants to make “satisfactory academic progress” toward earning a degree. The academic progress rule wouldn’t take effect until 2025.

That proposal, Surovell said on the Senate floor, gave VMSDEP supporters “pretty much everything they asked for,” plus tens of millions in new funding.

“Unfortunately we are unable to get some good work done that we had hoped to get done,” Surovell said after it became clear that Senate Republicans were not going to lend their votes to help the body fast-track the bill and allow it to pass on Monday.

Because the Senate is in a special summertime session, the body needed to take a two-thirds vote to waive a rule requiring the VMSDEP bill to be published for at least 48 hours prior to Monday’s vote.

Senate Republicans, who repeatedly asked their Democratic counterparts to pass a clean repeal bill as the House had done, noted that the General Assembly’s rules also required the House to agree to waive the 48-hour rule. Because of that, they said, the Senate technically couldn’t even execute the plan Democratic leaders had come up with for Monday.

If the Senate had passed a clean repeal bill, the Republicans argued, the VMSDEP controversy could have been over on Monday.

“We want to get it done today. This is not politics,” said Senate Minority Leader Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover. “This is a disagreement about how we get it done.”

At a meeting of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Monday afternoon, Surovell said the House’s clean repeal bill was “constitutionally defective” because of a technical formatting issue that had nothing to do with the underlying policy. Therefore, he said, the Senate could not pass that bill and could instead only pass the slightly different repeal bill Lucas had introduced on Monday.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, offered to draft a new bill addressing the technical issue Surovell flagged. Lucas said that, according to Senate customs, she is the only senator allowed to introduce budget-related legislation as the chair of the committee that handled the budget.

“It is my hope that the governor and the House will join me in announcing that we have an agreement,” Lucas said as she introduced her latest proposal.

Lucas and Surovell said they spent several hours meeting with Youngkin Monday morning attempting to come to an agreement on the VMSDEP issue.

It didn’t work.

In a statement Monday evening, Youngkin criticized the Senate for failing to pass a VMSDEP bill after a similarly fruitless outcome when the Senate took up the issue on June 18.

“The Senate Democrat leadership is hurting our military heroes, first responders and their families every time they show up and do nothing, as well as wasting time and taxpayer money,” Youngkin said. “A full, clean repeal, which passed out of the House unanimously, and was supported by a bipartisan majority in the Senate, could have been signed today.”

Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, a high-ranking House member who works on budget issues, briefly appeared before his Senate counterparts during their committee hearing. Sickles too said that if the Senate could go just a little further toward agreeing with the position of the House and the governor, the issue would be “over today.” If the Senate insisted on trying to pass a bill that didn’t quite match, he said, the way forward would remain unclear.

“Really, there’s not that much difference between the two bills now,” Sickles said in an interview.

At the end of the day, the Senate left town without announcing any plans to return.

If the legislature can’t pass a bill, Youngkin hinted he might force both chambers to return.

“The Senate and House need to agree to return next week, on the same day, so we can settle this issue once and for all, with the clean, and full, repeal bill,” the governor said. “If they can’t agree on coming back together to fix this, I will call them back to do exactly that.”

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