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Lawmakers split over military survivors and dependent education program repeal

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(The Center Square) — Virginia Senate Democrats announced Thursday that the Senate will reconvene earlier than expected to repeal some of the changes made to the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program in the most recent state budget, but others are saying that doesn’t go far enough.

“We must have a full repeal of the changes to VMSDEP and a full restoration of the program,” wrote Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Colonial Heights, on X. “That is the only option that can pass next week.”

Senate Republicans have publicly and vocally sided together on the VMSDEP changes.

As part of their announcement, Senate Democrats stated the finance committee would review legislation that exempts “Gold Star Families, applicable Line of Duty beneficiaries, and those wounded as a result of military combat who are at least 90% disabled” from the budget changes and pushes back the deadline for grandfathering into the program to anyone who “enroll[s] in classes by fall 2024.”

Such legislation would leave out dependents of veterans who are 90% or fully disabled as a result of non-combat-related military service. It is still unclear how it would apply to first responders – a class also affected by the changes to that section of the Virginia code.

In addition, Senate Democrats said the legislation would require the State Council of Higher Education to issue guidance on the renovated program no later than Aug. 1 and a study of the program by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to be completed this year.

The announcement explained the reasons behind the program cuts that have caused an uproar – massive growth in program enrollment since the program was expanded in 2019 but, more so, higher-than-anticipated costs. The Department of Veterans Services was aiming to get program enrollment in 2025 to 9,000 students across Virginia public universities, but now that schools have reached about 6,000, according to numbers submitted to the Council, the schools have said the program isn’t sustainable the way it is.

“The Department of Planning and Budget projected those changes would increase the cost of the budget by $5.4 million per year,” according to the announcement.

Instead, according to recent reports, costs have risen about $10.6 million per year for a total cost increase of 445% since 2019.

However, Kayla Owen, founder of Friends of VMSDEP and one of the voices calling for a third-party audit like the Commission study, cautions spectators against taking the numbers at face value, citing an example of a discrepancy she noticed. A Senate finance analyst shared the committee’s data on program enrollment with Owen.

“For 2023-24, George Mason was projected to have 1,159 students [in the program]. Mason themselves published something on May 28 of this year on their website stating they had almost 800 students. That’s a difference of 359 students, and that’s one single school,” Owen said.

Regardless of discrepancies, universities maintain the burden has become too great, resulting in increased tuition for more students.

Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, issued a statement about the June 18 reconvene.

“We are committed to taking this necessary step to rectify unintended consequences as we continue to work together to conduct an independent review to find a long-term solution for VMSDEP,” Lucas said. “I have dedicated my entire legislative career to ensure that everyone can access educational opportunities and reach their full potential. Our budget reflects this belief and the proposed changes reinforce my support for all students.”

However, other legislators, including Sturtevant’s House of Delegates counterpart and House Democrats, appear to be coming together to make an alternative proposal.

“I have joined @DelegateTorian, @MikeFeggans, & @jackie4norfolk in introducing HB 6003, a *clean,* bipartisan bill that repeals the hastily adopted changes to eligibility criteria for VMSDEP and other educational benefits.#RestoreVMSDEP,” Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, posted on X Thursday.

The House of Delegates reconvenes June 28.

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