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Senate fails to take action on military education benefits program repeal

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(The Center Square) — After a month of waiting, impacted military and first responder families have few reassurances that the eligibility changes made to a targeted education assistance program in May will be undone.

Virginia Senate Democrats announced late last week that the Senate would reconvene Tuesday in a special session to “address concerns around the VMSDEP program” resulting from program cuts in the state’s most recent budget passed in May. But once they were gathered at the Capitol, the Senate finance and appropriations chair shared that the VMSDEP and skill games bills she had proposed would not be docketed that day.

It’s unclear how or why Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, arrived at that decision, though she did say that last-minute discussions that morning—perhaps regarding those bills, perhaps regarding others—caused the committee meeting to start an hour late.

“Sorry for the delay, everybody, but we had a lot, a few changes that happened just this morning. You know how it is when you get two or three people that want to do something different. It takes a while to kind of iron that out,” Lucas said.

Lucas attributed the change in plans, at least in part, to the governor’s negotiating tactics.

“Yesterday, the governor seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t sign a skill games bill until after VMSDEP changes are repealed,” Lucas told those in attendance. “I am not going to pit constituents against each other. We care about all of you. We need solutions on both issues, and we have to continue working on both.”

Instead of reviewing the proposed bills Tuesday, Lucas announced that – in addition to the 30-member task force convened by the governor to review and provide guidance on the changes – she was creating a subject matter expert work group of Democratic Sens. Barbara Favola, Jeremy McPike and Danica Roem, and Republican Sens. Bryce Reeves and Bill Desteph. She also called on the legislative watchdog, the Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission, to commence a program review immediately to assist the work group in its research.

“I expect to work in a collaborative fashion with all senators to come up with a more eloquent solution in the coming weeks,” she said.

Senate Republicans attempted to introduce an alternative bill that had support from several Democratic Senators, enabling a full repeal of the VMSDEP changes, but Lucas similarly chose not to docket that bill.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin released a statement criticizing the lack of progress made Tuesday.

“I stand with our military heroes, first responders, and their families today who are stunned that Senate Democrat leadership failed to even consider a simple bill, supported by a bipartisan majority of Senators, to reverse the changes to VMSDEP by fully repealing the language, and addressing this in the full light of day. These men and women deserve so much better,” Youngkin said.

The House is set to reconvene on June 28, and a similar, full-repeal bill has already been introduced.

The new state budget goes into effect July 1.

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