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Virginia House and Senate reach deal on military education program

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(The Center Square) — Monday ended with another disappointment for those unhappy with recent changes to a state education assistance program for military families, but by Tuesday night, things had turned around.

Tuesday evening, the Senate of Virginia issued a press release stating that the House of Delegates and Senate finance chairs had finally reached an agreement on the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program after a month and a half of upheaval surrounding changes made to the program in the latest state budget.

The House and Senate will meet again for a special session to consider identical legislation to fully repeal the program changes from Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth.

Lucas had used her position as chair of the Senate money committee to bar a full repeal until Tuesday when she appeared to have a change of heart. She had commissioned a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study of the program, and lawmakers recently committed to more state support over the next two years.

“This study and the allocation of what will now be $65 million per year for the program provides me with the comfort that we will not place the burden of escalating costs of the program on other students through their tuition charges,” Lucas said in a statement. “The JLARC study and our select workgroup on VMSDEP will provide us with the answers we need to ensure this program will be sustainable long-term to serve veterans and their families.”

It’s been a long road to consensus, even though the budget was only signed on May 13.

First, changes narrowing program eligibility were incorporated into the state budget instead of through legislation, which would have had to secure a majority vote in multiple committees and both chambers to pass. The changes came as a response to state universities saying that program costs had become unmanageable and vastly exceeded projections.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the budget on May 13, though he had recommended amendments to rejected items.

The public backlash was so intense that just two days after it was passed, Youngkin issued an executive directive creating a task force to study and advise on the program changes. The pushback continued – so much that before the task force even had its first meeting, the governor threatened to call lawmakers back to Richmond in a special session to repeal the changes.

Legislators then called a special session, and it was assumed both chambers would reconvene on the same day. But the Senate surprised onlookers and agreed to gather one week earlier than the House, with some Senate Democrats saying they would consider a partial repeal.

When they did meet, though Senators had introduced bipartisan legislation fully repealing the changes, Lucas announced the finance committee wouldn’t docket any legislation that day because the governor had said he would not consider changes to skill games legislation before a full repeal of the VMSDEP changes. Lucas, an advocate of skill games, said she would not “pit constituents against each other.”

The House gathered for its special session on June 28 and unanimously voted for a full repeal. But that bill would still have to get past the Senate. A Senate workgroup – also commissioned by Lucas – met that same day. Lucas had introduced another bill making other concessions but still advocating for a partial repeal, which the workgroup’s chair seemed to support.

“I do want to make it clear that unless each chamber of the General Assembly passes the same language and the governor signs that language – unless that happens – the current budget language will be in effect,” Favola said. “This is a balance of activism and… actually making public policy.”

On Monday, the Senate met at the Capitol, but the House’s full repeal legislation was again blocked from being considered on the Senate floor by the finance committee. Instead, Majority Leader Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, proposed the chamber vote on a bill that had been introduced just that morning. This went against standard Senate protocol, which requires that Senators have at least 48 hours to review a bill before voting on it. He blamed politics when the Senate didn’t go for it.

“What we now find is, we have a bill that would solve everyone’s problems, answer all the questions. It would repeal all the changes. But instead, we’re not going to vote on it today because… for political reasons, those procedural objections were not waived,” Surovell said.

Surovell insisted that he, Lucas, and some other Senate Democrats had only been working to “protect the program for its long-term financial viability.”

Then, with no warning, Lucas conceded on Tuesday in her agreement with House finance Chair Torian.

The House and Senate are set to reconvene on Thursday, July 18.

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