Why military families are so upset with Virginia lawmakers: 'This is ridiculous'

Posted at 6:57 PM, Jun 19, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. -- After several hours of delays and huddled meetings between lawmakers, the Virginia Senate failed to take any action legislation to address pending changes in eligibility for a state program for educational benefits at state public colleges and universities, drawing criticisms from families who will be impacted in attendance at the hearings.

"I'm really mad. I'm livid. It's ridiculous. I took a day out of my life. I took a day out of my child's life to be here, as did many of my friends," said Suzanne Wheatley, whose husband is a disabled veteran.

"It's about what we are owed as a people that put our families, our lives on the line. This isn't about one person," added Antoinette Croley, another spouse of disabled veteran. "We are a people who support this community and the state and they're saying too bad. It's too much money"

The Virginia Military Survivors & Dependents Education Program, or VMSDEP, waives tuition at public Virginia universities and colleges for survivors and dependents of veterans killed or seriously disabled while on active duty. But, last month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin and state lawmakers included language in the state budget that limited who could access the program and adding steps before they could. This came after universities had said recent changes in eligibility led to increased enrollment and costs associated with the program.

"The point of the changes was to preserve the viability of the program," said Majority Leader Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Eastern Fairfax County). "The cost of the program was exploding exponentially. It was projected to be a $5.4 million hit on the universities and it's turned into a $40 million hit on the universities in the last four years."

However, after public backlash, Youngkin formed a task force to look at the issue and called for a special session to fully repeal the changes and await recommendations from the task force.

Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D - Portsmouth
Sen. Louise Lucas (D - Portsmouth)

Only the Virginia Senate met Tuesday, but the first committee meeting of the day was delayed over an hour at which point Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), the head of the Finance and Appropriations Committee, declined to advance any proposed legislation -- a bill that would partially roll back the changes to VMSDEP and one that would legalize skill games, both carried by her.

She pointed at comments from Youngkin that he wouldn't consider skill games legislation unless VMSDEP was fully repealed.

"I'm not going to pit constituents against each other. We care about all of you. We need solutions on both issues, and we will have to continue working on both," she said.

Lucas instead created a group of bipartisan lawmakers to begin meeting June 28 to start gathering public comments, discuss the program and make recommendations to the full committee in September.

Military Families
Melissa Robey

"Why are you making things more difficult than they have to be -- because it's a circus that you say you're not creating?" said Melissa Robey, who added first responders' families are also being impacted by the change.

Lucas also denied a hearing on a bill that called for a full repeal of the program changes co-sponsored by Democrats and Republicans.

"I don't know why we're here. We're wasting taxpayer dollars to the tune of $40- to $50,000. For us to come in and do a finger drill all day, that's pretty upsetting," said Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Orange), one of the co-sponsors. "I'm not confident of anything right now to be honest with you. Other than we wasted a bunch of taxpayer money coming down here with our thumbs up our butt getting nothing done."

Sen. Bryce Reeves
Sen. Bryce Reeves

There was talk of a potential deal later that day on the Senate floor to delay the implementation of the changes until October, but it would have required 80% of the Senate to support the move.

"The Republican caucus wouldn't cooperate with us on any of the two solutions that we proposed. We gave them two solutions to give us a path to changes, they wouldn't read either," said Surovell.

Youngkin said he was stunned by the Senate's lack of action Tuesday “to even consider a simple bill, supported by a bipartisan majority of Senators.”

Military heroes, first responders, and their families "deserve so much better," Youngkin said in a statement.

Lucas said she is working on a new bill to address VMSDEP, but it would still not be a full repeal. The Senate will reconvene on July 1 to take that up.

However, the House of Delegates will be in Richmond on June 28 and Speaker Don Scott's office tells CBS 6 they intend to take up their only piece of legislation to fully repeal the VMSDEP changes.

When asked what the Senate would do with the House legislation, Lucas said "Well, I'll be here on July 1. I'll make up my mind then."

Military families, who want full repeal, said they would be there, too.

"We'll be back. We don't go away, we'll be back. We're used to persisting," said Croley.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email to send a tip.



Watch 'The Jennifer Hudson Show' weekdays at 3 p.m. on CBS 6!

📱 Download CBS 6 News App
The app features breaking news alerts, live video, weather radar, traffic incidents, closings and delays and more.