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Virginia Senate returns to Richmond but fails to pass any bills

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Virginia Senate returns to Richmond but fails to pass any bills

Jun 18, 2024 | 8:54 pm ET
By Graham Moomaw
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Virginia Senate returns to Richmond but fails to pass any bills
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Supporters of the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program watch lawmakers from the Senate gallery. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

Democratic leaders in the Virginia Senate thought they could go their own way on the scheduling and policy agenda for a rare June special session. But things didn’t go according to plan Tuesday as the Senate spent a whole day in Richmond without taking up a single bill.

Supporters of bills to legalize skill games and reverse recent cost-cutting measures imposed on a program that allows some military families to get tuition-free college filled a meeting room Tuesday morning to see the Senate act on the two hot-button issues that were expected to be on the agenda.

Virginia Senate set to take up military tuition program, skill games

The Senate committee that was supposed to get the day rolling Tuesday morning gaveled in an hour late as senators repeatedly ducked in and out of backroom huddles. And when the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee meeting got underway, Chair Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, announced the committee wouldn’t be voting on either topic after all.

When that committee meeting ended, Democrats leaders hinted they had a backup plan in the works as they headed to the Senate floor. When that plan also failed to gain traction, the Senate wrapped up its day without much of anything happening except speeches.

“I’m livid. It’s ridiculous,” said Norfolk military wife Suzanne Wheatley. “I took a day out of my life, I took a day out of my child’s life, to be here.”

The lack of action left both issues in limbo as the Senate left town again with a vague agreement to reconvene by July 1.

Wheatley and several other people who traveled to Richmond Tuesday expressed disgust over what they saw as a round of political sniping over veteran benefits that went nowhere and gave them no clarity on what the state intends to do about the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program, or VMSDEP.

“It’s a move-the-goalposts exercise,” said Stafford County military veteran and advocate Caitlin Goodale-Porter.

VMSDEP waives public higher education for spouses and children of military members killed or severely disabled as a result of their service. Alarmed by a spike in the numbers of students using the benefit and the associated costs for state colleges, policymakers recently changed the rules of the program to make fewer families eligible for it. 

A bipartisan budget deal approved last month imposed a stricter Virginia residency requirement, prevents the waivers from being used for advanced degrees or a second undergraduate degree and requires participants to first pursue other forms of financial aid and only use VMSDEP for remaining costs.

Though Democrats have pointed out many Republicans backed the VMSDEP changes before demanding that they be reversed, Democrats are split over whether they should go along with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s call to immediately repeal the VMSDEP reforms. The inaction Tuesday gave Republicans an easier opening to argue dysfunction in the Democratic-controlled legislature was preventing a policy misstep from being fixed.

Lucas refused to docket a bill backed by the Senate Republicans and at least four Senate Democrats, numbers that could’ve given the legislation enough votes to pass in a chamber where Democrats hold a slim 21-19 majority.

“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,” Youngkin said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon. “These men and women deserve so much better.”

Two Democratic lawmakers — Sens. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax and Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun — were absent from the Capitol Tuesday as they both competed in a congressional primary election the same day. Given the lack of votes in the Senate, it’s unclear if their absence affected Democrats’ decision to not bring any bills to the floor. All 19 Republicans were present, giving the GOP equal voting strength to Democrats with Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears acting as the tie-breaker.

Both parties in the House of Delegates have expressed support for passing a complete repeal bill like the one Lucas blocked when the House returns to the Capitol on June 28.

Democratic leaders in the Senate said it was Republicans who were being intransigent by refusing to work with the majority party.

“The Republican caucus wouldn’t cooperate with us on any of the two solutions we proposed,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, told reporters after the Senate finished for the day.

Lucas had filed a bill partially rolling back the VMSDEP changes by ensuring that anyone using VMSDEP to enroll in classes this fall wouldn’t be impacted by the eligibility changes and exempting the families of veterans killed or wounded in combat with a 90% disability rating. Democrats have said that proposal would reduce the disruption to college plans military families say they’ve experienced since the budget was passed, while also moving the program closer to its original purpose of helping families impacted by war instead of being a more open-ended benefit.

At the committee meeting, Lucas faulted the governor as she explained the decision to not take up her own bill. On Monday, Youngkin’s office had said the governor would not act on a skill game bill until the General Assembly had fully repealed the VMSDEP changes.

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

Lucas announced that she was creating a legislative work group to study VMSDEP and directing the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to take a deeper look at data showing how the program is or isn’t working as intended. Youngkin has already convened his own task force to study the program.

Democrats proposed another VMSDEP fix: simply delaying the effective date of the changes until Oct. 1 while the work group conducted its research. That idea went nowhere, Surovell said, because Republicans wouldn’t agree to help Democrats with procedural votes to get it onto the floor Tuesday.

Virginia House and Senate will take up military tuition benefit on different days

When questioned by reporters as she left the Capitol, Lucas didn’t give a clear answer on what she would do if the House sends the Senate a VMSDEP bill like the one she blocked Tuesday.

“I’ll make up my mind then,” she said.

In floor speeches, several Republicans senators blasted the process as fundamentally undemocratic, suggesting Lucas’s rule over her committee shouldn’t outweigh the majority opinion of the 40-person Senate.

The bill to fully repeal the VMSDEP changes, said Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, has “majority support in the Senate.”

“And yet despite these folks getting up early today and driving here, they didn’t get to have that bill heard,” he said.

Republicans could have attempted to bring the full repeal bill to the floor over Lucas’s objections, a little-used parliamentary move that effectively lets the full body override the wishes of a committee chair. Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, said the GOP chose not to use that “nuclear option” out of deference to Senate tradition. But he took exception to Lucas’ decision not to docket the repeal bill he co-sponsored and said he’s unsure what might happen when the House sends over its version.

“I’m not confident of anything right now to be honest with you,” Reeves said. “Other than we wasted a bunch of taxpayers’ money coming down here with our thumbs up our butt getting nothing done.” 

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, accused Republicans of politicizing the issue and taking a “my way or the highway” approach to the conversation.

“It has become more of a political discussion than a policy discussion,” Locke said.

Surovell told reporters the criticism of how Lucas is wielding her power is overstated, because committee chairs frequently have to decide to docket some bills and not others in the compressed time frame of a special session.

“I don’t know why it should be any different now that there’s a Black woman chairing the committee,” he said.

Friends of VMSDEP, the main advocacy group opposing the recent eligibility changes, blasted Lucas for her actions Tuesday. In a statement, the group said Lucas and other skill game supporters had “hijacked” the day to “try to unleash an unprecedented expansion of gambling across the commonwealth” instead of addressing the needs of veterans.

Advocates for legalizing skill games were also left wondering what the Senate’s decisions Tuesday meant. In a statement, the pro-skill game Virginia Merchants and Amusements Coalition said it hopes lawmakers “will come together on a resolution when they reconvene.”