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A Virginia political fight illustrates the dilemma states face as costs rise for veterans programs

Veterans fill the gallery of the Virginia House of Delegates as legislators meet June 28 in a special session to consider reversing cuts in a veterans education program. Delegates voted unanimously to reverse the cost-cutting move, but an agreement has not been reached with the state Senate.
Steve Walsh
American Homefront
Veterans fill the gallery of the Virginia House of Delegates as legislators meet June 28 in a special session to consider reversing cuts in a veterans education program. Delegates voted unanimously to reverse the cost-cutting move, but didn't reach an agreement with the state Senate.

Cost are increasing sharply as post-911 veterans begin to qualify for state benefits. But cutting the programs is politically difficult.

Kayla Owen, the spouse of a disabled veteran, was planning to go to graduate school under a Virginia program that pays college tuition for families of troops who died on active duty or were at least 90 percent disabled.

But in May, she found out Virginia legislators had made substantial eligibility changes to the program.

"Everybody told us this is completely extraordinary," she said. "They've never seen anything like this and the General Assembly as long as they've been alive."

The changes in the tuition program were part of the bipartisan state budget approved by the Democratic-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in May. The changes passed with little public discussion.

Owen is part of a coalition of veterans groups that she said learned about the cuts only after they became law.

"You can't just pull the rug out from under people with no notice,” Owen said, noting that she surveyed the members of the veterans groups. "95 percent of them said their family had made major financial decisions based on the expectation of using the program."

The coalition persuaded legislators and the governor to call a special session in late June to roll back the cuts. Though lawmakers were unable to agree on a repeal plan during that session, they plan to return to the Capitol July 18 to try again.

Legislative leaders are confident that they will pass a repeal plan during the July session, which would use surplus state revenue to fully fund the tuition program.

Veterans groups worry Virginia cut the program just as those who served during the 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan are beginning to qualify.

"I think we're kind of at the age now where most people that served post 9-11 have kids that are going to college," Owen said. "So you know, for the next five years, the program may go up."

Though the tuition program has been around for nearly a century, Virginia expanded it in 2019 to include, among other groups, vets with non-combat related injuries. The cost jumped from $12 million in 2019 to $65 million last year.

“The fact we've been at war for 20 years, that's one factor," Lee Andes, interim Director of Finance with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. "The expansion of the program that was considered, but the expansion was dramatically more than what was projected.”

Though only a handful of states have cut veterans benefits, many states – and the federal government – have seen those large cost increases.

"Benefits always peak many, many decades later, as veterans become older and sicker and require greater use of these benefits," said Linda Bilmes with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Bilmes has authored several papers on the long-term price tag of the Post-911 wars.

Bilmes has been urging Congress to create a trust fund to pay the future cost of benefits for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. She notes that Post-911 veterans often served multiple tours, and their benefits are better then earlier wars.

Only roughly one percent of Americans serve in the military, and Bilmes said the lack of shared sacrifice has often left Post-911 vets behind their peers who didn’t serve.

"They come back, and they see everyone in the community has been able to buy a house and go to college and whatever, and they didn't get anything," Bilmes said. "They tend to sort of rely on the VA benefits."

The Virginia legislature's action comes as the state - like many others - is working to attract veterans. Governor Youngkin campaigned on making Virginia more friendly to veterans. Several other states also offer tuition programs, and 26 exempt military retirement income from state tax.

"Virginia tries to position itself as the most veteran friendly state," said Jose Ramos, a national vice president for the Wounded Warrior Project. "This kind of flew in the face of that effort."

Meanwhile, as the program's costs are expected to continue rising, the governor has formed a task force to look at changes in the next state budget.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

Military and Veterans Reporter, Norfolk, Virginia
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