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Virginia Senate whiffs on VMSDEP, skill games at summer special session

Col. Monti Zimmerman speaks before the Senate Finance committee during a June 2024 special session.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
Col. Monti Zimmerman speaks before the Senate Finance committee during a June 2024 special session.

The Virginia Senate failed to reach a compromise to fix a veterans’ education benefit program at a special session in Richmond Tuesday. A long-disputed effort to legalize skill games was also scrapped during the often tense, day-long summer meeting.

The discord over the future of the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program, or VMSDEP, broke in part along party lines, with most Democrats arguing the program's rapid success resulted in an unfunded mandate.

“The response has been so overwhelming, in many ways it jeopardized the viability of the program because a lot of our smaller schools can’t afford this,” Democratic Majority leader Scott Surovell said before the body Tuesday afternoon. He argued the seats the program forced Virginia colleges to give up via vouchers for the family of wounded vets impact the rest of those who pay to attend.

Increases in tuition and other costs were linked to the program's rise from about $5 million a year to over $60 million in the last five years. Those costs led to new limits in the program, signed by Governor Glenn Youngkin and approved by nearly all 140 legislators as part of the 2024 budget.

Surovell told Radio IQ VMSDEP had some of the loosest requirements in the country, with only one year of residency required, no checks on academic performance and no requirement to exhaust alternative funding options before asking the state to cover costs.

“The purpose of this program is to help people get started in life, and 20% of the program goes to graduate school programs,” he said.

Republicans, meanwhile, argued the cost was worth it.

“Our inaction speaks volumes,” Senator Bryce Reeves, himself a veteran of the U.S. Army, said on the Senate floor. He told Radio IQ both Republican and Democratic Governors had long sought to make Virginia #1 for vets. "Unless we want to change our direction, we’re no longer going to be the most veteran friendly state.”

Former Democratic Governor Ralph Northam signed the 2019 VMSDEP expansions which many argue led to its rising costs.

Reeves also carried a so-called “clean repeal” which would have returned the program to its pre-2024 budget language. It also had the support of a handful of Democratic Senators.

Among those was Sen. Jeremy McPike. The Woodbridge-area Senator said he understood Lucas's motivation even if he would have preferred Reeves' version had passed. He instead stressed the need for more data on the program before changes could be made.

"There is work that will be moving forward," McPike said of the JLARC study requested by Lucas with results expected in the Fall. "It will help us make the best decisions which I know everyone here is interested in making."

The drama started earlier in the afternoon.

A Senate Finance committee meeting, with a VMSDEP fix carried by chair Sen. Louise Lucas, began over an hour late. And shortly after it started Lucas said she’d docket no bills for the senate floor scheduled for that afternoon.

“We had a lot of changes that happened just this morning, and it takes a while to iron out differences,” Lucas told the committee. And while no bill to address the program was advanced, she did allow public testimony on the issue.

Among those who asked for a clean repeal was Col. Monti Zimmerman, a 30-year-military veteran and a member of the Council of Veteran’s Services. He said both his wife and son, himself now serving, took advantage of the program.

“Please stop harming vulnerable populations,” he said, arguing the family members of injured and disabled veterans were dealing with even more uncertainty in the face of an altered program.

Towards the end of the meeting Reeves tried to force his bill before the committee but Lucas called the move improper and blocked it.

Back in the Senate chamber later that afternoon, concerns about the program’s rising costs were met with more calls for protecting Virginia’s vets. But in the end a motion to return the Senate to Richmond Monday, July 1, was agreed to.

Governor Glenn Youngkin, who’s also asked for a clean repeal and a study before addressing VMSDEP’s sustainability, frowned at the Senate’s incomplete work. He also pointed to Reeve’s clean repeal as an option the body missed out on.

“[The Senate must] reverse the changes to VMSDEP by fully repealing the language, and addressing this in the full light of day,” Youngkin said in a statement Tuesday evening. “These men and women deserve so much better,”

The House of Delegates, meanwhile, will reconvene June 28th. Speaker Don Scott has promised to pass a clean repeal of the program’s changes. The senate is expected to return the following Monday where it could take up the House’s measure. One chamber must pass the other’s bill before sending it to Youngkin for his signature.

Senator Bryce Reeves speaks on the Senate floor in support of a "clean repeal" of changes to VMSDEP.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
Senator Bryce Reeves speaks on the Senate floor in support of a "clean repeal" of changes to VMSDEP.

A pair of skill games bills were also thought to be debated Tuesday. Lucas, long an advocate for the convenience store gambling machines that lead to $120 million in revenue for the state during the Covid-19 pandemic, carried one of them but left it off the docket alongside the VMSDEP fix. She pointed to language from Youngkin which asked for the vet program to be addressed before tackling skill games.

A Republican skill game effort, allegedly more in line with Governor Glenn Youngkin’s amendments ahead of his veto earlier this year, was also shelved.

“Well, I’ve kept my word about small businesses and skill games, and I’ll continue to fight in 2025 and beyond,” said Sen. Christie New Craig of whether the bill would be ready for primetime once VMSDEP was fixed.

Ankit Patel, part of the Virginia Amusement Coalition, was also among those disappointed with the Senate’s actions.

“We feel like we’re in limbo,” the convenience store manager told Radio IQ. “We were there when Virginia needed us the most, working 60 hours a week.”

Senator Aaron Rouse was co-patron of Lucas’ skill games bill and testified before the Finance committee alongside the public.

“We have continuously fought to find a compromise and that’s what this Senate bill attempts to do,” he said, calling it a time to make Youngkin “put up or shut up.”

But Col. Zimmerman returned to the dais to speak against skill games after Rouse spoke. He said the state VFW chapter asked the legislature to skip skill games until VMSDEP and “not use veterans as pawns to benefit gambling machine companies.”

Zimmerman got his way in the end - Lucas signed skill games would not be addressed until VMSDEP was in the rear-view mirror.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.