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General Assembly leaders reach agreement on military tuition program

Person with hand on face, looking upset, as other person comforts and looks at someone speaking out of frame
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Kayla Owen holds onto Donna Lewis while listening to testimony during a Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Select Workgroup on Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program on Friday, June 28, 2024 at the General Assembly Building in Richmond.

The VMSDEP stalemate has frustrated eligible families for months.

The legislative leadership in the Virginia General Assembly have come to an agreement to repeal controversial changes to a military tuition benefits program Tuesday.

It comes a day after the state Senate failed to forward a bill past a procedural hurdle in the General Assembly — and after the House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill to repeal last week.

The agreement is to repeal the changes, without imposing additional requirements, and includes funding beyond what was already set aside to offset the program’s costs, according to legislators and their staff.

“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 the escalating costs of the program on other students through their tuition charges,” said state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D–Portsmouth), chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, in a Tuesday statement.

The actual language of both announced bills became available on Wednesday.

Lawmakers from both chambers still need to vote on the changes, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin will need to sign off as well. Lawmakers plan to return July 18 for a vote. A spokesperson for the governor pointed to a social media post Tuesday in response to a question: “A full, clean repeal with additional financial support for the VMSDEP program, unencumbered by any other provisions, is great news for our military heroes, first responders, and their families.”

Elected officials adjusted the Virginia Military Survivors & Dependents Education Program, also known as VMSDEP, in the budget passed in May. They attempted to contain the rapidly-expanding cost of the program as enrollment has gone up in recent years and commissioned a study on it.

Meanwhile, veterans groups decried the initial changes as “deliberate and deceptive,” adding that legislators have put their families’ academic futures in limbo.

In the 50 days since the budget was passed, veterans groups have expressed extreme frustration by the lack of progress on a full repeal as they lobbied extensively on Capitol Square, often traveling hours to get to Richmond.

Kayla Owen, a co-founder of Friends of VMSDEP, a grassroots organization for veterans and their families, said shortly after Tuesday’s announcement they would wait to see legislators’ language before making any statements.

“We have no problem rolling our sleeves up and trying to fix this,” said Owen earlier on Tuesday. “We keep doing things over and over again like a backwards political Groundhog Day.”

VMSDEP is nearly a century old; it originally provided tuition benefits for the children of those killed or disabled in World War I. It has since expanded to now include spouses and stepchildren of veterans killed or disabled in action, or disabled in noncombat incidents.

Today, it can pay for eight semesters of tuition at a public college or university.

Since the budget’s passage in May, it’s become the focus of political conflict in the commonwealth.

“I'm definitely learning a lot about how our government does or does not work. And I'm very disappointed,” said Katrina Frye, a veteran from Salem who is disabled due to military sexual trauma. She told VPM News she left the floor debate because it was triggering and anxiety-inducing.

The changes that could be repealed went into effect with the new fiscal year on July 1 and narrowed the scope of the benefits for new participants. VMSDEP now requires state and federal aid to be applied first, and students must fill out the application for federal student aid, among other adjustments — though the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia hasn’t released guidance about the changes because it’s been anticipating the changes would ultimately be repealed.

The two-year spending plan signed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin was the result of a compromise between him and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly after months of turmoil. One non-budget bill from the General Assembly this year, carried by state Sen. Bryce Reeves (R–Spotsylvania), formally addressed a possible VMSDEP workgroup; it was referred to next year’s session.

Youngkin said the VMSDEP changes were “tucked into” the budget. The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Del. Luke Torian (D–Prince William), told another reporter that was an “untruth.” Youngkin had also submitted a budget amendment in April removing the changes.

“It's really a sad day because we are the ones who've been fighting to preserve this program for the families that need it,” said Majority Leader Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax) on the Senate floor Monday. “That's how it goes in politics sometimes, and we'll have to see about the consequences.”

Sen. Surovell gives remarks in front of a portait
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
State Sen. Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax) as supporters listen in the gallery during a special session on Monday, July 1, 2024 at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

Surovell had questioned whether the House’s “clean repeal” bill was constitutional due to a Virginia Supreme Court decision.

Senate Minority Leader Ryan McDougle (R–Hanover) said Monday that the governor could amend the House bill to address possible unconstitutionality.

“When we're talking about playing politics, the reality is we have a choice,” he said. “We can pass a clean repeal, listen to the people that have very strong personal opinions and come back with a solution that works for all Virginians. It is straightforward, it is not complicated. And we could do that today.”

The Senate bill that failed to clear the procedural motion Monday repeals all the budget’s changes and funds the program using anticipated surpluses. Up until now, the cost has fallen on Virginia colleges themselves.

Delegates’ bill also did not have $45 million that the senators included to offset the program cost. That money would come from unanticipated tax revenues.

Universities have said VMSDEP is not sustainable long term and that it is an unfunded mandate. In a statement to VPM News, Virginia Commonwealth University said it “strongly supports” VMSDEP and it was hopeful it could be “funded sustainably.”

“I don't get how the colleges can give free tuition to athletes [and] they can build $80 million football centers,” said Frye, a self-described “bleeding-heart liberal.” “They can do all this, but the [Senate] Finance Committee is making it sound like the VMSDEP kids are the burden on the university.”

Monday’s stalled bill also added a requirement that students receiving a VMSDEP tuition waiver make “satisfactory academic progress,” a process colleges use to help determine students’ eligibility for future financial aid. If students don’t meet a school’s GPA requirements, they could lose grants, scholarships and more — and could ultimately be on the hook for the entire cost of their education.

That requirement is reportedly not in the bill announced on Tuesday, according to legislators and staff.

Growing cost and enrollment

VMSDEP has “grown significantly” since adoption of 2019 eligibility changes, according to a House Appropriations Committee summary, and faster than initially predicted.

Though there has been debate about the accuracy of the data, Lee Andes with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia told VPM News that figures from the publicly available FA22 reports are “pretty firm,” because this data represents figures provided by colleges and universities that SCHEV has audited for accuracy.

“Institutions are always having to go back and correct data to make it align to our auditing rules,” Andes said.

Tuition waivers increased from roughly $12 million to $86 million, a sevenfold increase; stipends have grown from $2.1 million to $9.7 million, according to the House Appropriations summary. In the 2022-23 academic year, over 6,000 students were enrolled in the program.

In meetings, legislators also attributed the steep uptick to the number of dependents of veterans in America’s military conflicts following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Veterans’ families have a special place in politics, said Michael Desch, a University of Notre Dame professor who studies the relationships between the military and society. He said public and contemporary elected officials generally respect and appreciate veterans, but are not willing to serve themselves.

“That creates something of an unusual psychological dynamic. We tend to compensate by bending over backwards, not questioning benefits and other programs that [if they were] involving other groups would be subject to pretty complete debate and cold-blooded, green eyeshades consideration,” he said.

Owen disagreed.

“I don’t know of any other group that has to go to talk about their disabilities in public to get benefits,” she said.

Desch said veterans' families are generally organized and politically active on issues that impact them.

“It's pretty clear that they feel like they're sort of an isolated subset of the American population and that the rest of us who haven't served in uniform don't fully understand,” he said.

Military families have been very active in trying to protect these benefits, filling up committee rooms.

As the House of Delegates unanimously passed its repeal bill Friday, applause broke out in a legislative committee room, where a Senate task force — separate from the one formed by Youngkin — heard from families who gave public comment and sometimes yelled at senators from their seats in the audience.

On Monday, families packed the Senate gallery with shirts reading “No Repeal No Deal” and “Save VMSDEP Reverse and Repeal.”

At the time, there was no end in sight to the stalemate.

“I do hope, sincerely, that we come up with a resolution as soon as humanly possible right now,” said state Sen. Danica Roem (D–Manassas) before the announcement. “I don't think anyone wants to have to keep reopening, and reliving their horrors in the worst days, not only their lives, but the family's lives to go with them.”

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.
Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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