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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Virginia Senate holds off voting to adjust changes to military dependent’s tuition waiver program 

The Virginia Senate did not take up a bill as planned that would have fixed changes made to a tuition waiver program for military dependents.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A long day of backroom discussions and public finger-pointing resulted in little as the Virginia Senate decided to prolong repealing changes to a military dependent's tuition waiver program

Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin asked the Senate to reconvene for a special session Tuesday to correct the harm done by Youngkin and the General Assembly's budget that severely gutted the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program. A Republican-led effort, with bipartisan support, sought to repeal the budget language in its entirety, while a Democratic-led effort sought to offer amendments. 

The gap between the two proposed fixes proved too wide, leading to Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Senator Louise Lucas announcing that no vote would be taken up as planned. Lucas did establish a work group comprised of five senators to evaluate possible tweaks to the program.

The Senate plans on reconvening on Friday, but the path forward is still unknown. The program offers tuition waivers and stipends for dependents of deceased, missing or disabled veterans to attend Virginia public universities. 

Youngkin and the Democratic-controlled legislature made criteria changes for applicants that would significantly cut the program's spending. Changes included reenacting a domicile requirement, limiting awards to first undergraduate degrees, requiring completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and restoring a satisfactory academic progress requirement.

The cuts grandfathered all existing students and any new students who formally committed by May 15, 2024. Applicants were given less than 48 hours from when the budget passed on May 13 to May 15 to submit applications under the previous criteria.

After an outcry from Virginia's veteran community, Youngkin called on legislators to repeal the budget language. The bill supported by Lucas would have exempted Gold Star families and dependents of those disabled in combat from the stricter criteria. 

Lawmakers, many of whom accepted donations from skill games manufacturers, saw the reconvened session as a chance to shoehorn a vote to legalize the slot-like machines that inhabit convenience stores and gas stations. Lucas' proposed bill added language that would establish a regulation plan for the skill games in addition to amending the changes to the benefits program. 

Bipartisan legislation overturning the skill games ban passed through the General Assembly, but Youngkin offered amendments, effectively killing the bill. 

Advocates of the benefits program and skills games packed a Senate appropriations and finance committee meeting, where Lucas announced that no bill would be voted on before a public comment period. 

Veteran Christy McGinnis emphasized that not including those injured outside of combat would disproportionately affect the dependents of female veterans. McGinnis said that many women veterans experienced sexual abuse during their time in service, resulting in them being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Any legislation that excludes protection for noncombat-related injuries, illnesses or deaths will disproportionately impact the women veterans of Virginia," McGinnis said during a public comment period. 

Lawmakers defended the cuts as a way to keep the program sustainable. It's grown due to the widening of criteria for applicants and an increase in college-age dependents from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Public universities, which bear the cost of the waivers, claim they hike other students' tuition to pay.

Republican Senator Bryce Reeves introduced a measure that would repeal all changes to the program. After the finance meeting, the Senate met in its chambers, where both sides used points of personal privilege to share their views on Lucas' decision. 

"Do we still want to be the number one state in the country for veterans," Reeves asked on the Senate floor. "Our inaction speaks volumes." 

Republican Tara Durant echoed Reeves' sentiment. 

"We should not have gone through and had this bill pocketed," Durant said. "It's really a disservice to the Commonwealth, to our taxpayers, that we've been called down here to essentially get nothing accomplished."

Democrat Barbara Favola defended Lucas' idea of studying the program's data more rather than returning it to its status quo. 

"As lawmakers, we need to take our job very seriously and always evaluate programs that we offer," Favola said. "What we are asking today, I believe, is to pause, to maybe continue with our current program. But in the meanwhile, we have a work group set up."

The House of Delegates is slated to meet on June 28, and it will also attempt to pass a plan to fix the budget's mistake. 

Categories / Education, Government, Politics

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