Mistakes happen. But Virginia’s rushed and anachronistic legislative calendar invites them. • Virginia Mercurio

Virginia’s political class loves to beat its chest with its “part-time legislature,” doing the people’s bidding in the dead of winter each year and then sending its citizen legislators back to their homes long before the first daffodils bloom. .

Yet here we are at the end of June, a special session in the books and likely facing another legislative call to the Capitol in Richmond, this time to fix a problem with a failed budget amendment that restricts the eligibility of veterans’ dependents. using the college benefits they have been promised.

It’s not about mistakes. People do them.

No, this is a system of policymaking rooted in Virginia’s distant, bucolic past, when tobacco farming, textile milling, and coal mining were the pillars of an economy in the Commonwealth that was insignificant compared to the actual. This is a system that invites error and inefficiency.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it “until the cows come home,” if I may borrow an aphorism almost as old-fashioned as those notions about the virtues of an abbreviated, amateurish, pastoral General Assembly: Virginia, with The Twelfth Population largest in the country and its 13th largest gross domestic product, it is a busy, fast-paced and technologically advanced state, inextricably connected to the neighboring seat of the national government. Their problems and the political solutions they demand are proportionately complex. However, we adhere to a legislative calendar consistent with 19th century agrarian Virginia.

Ten states have full-time legislatures, according the National Conference of State Legislatures. Virginia’s legislature is among 26 that the NCSL classifies as “hybrid,” somewhere between those that essentially stay on the job year-round and those with limited meeting times that range from a few weeks to every two years. We pay our senators $18,000 and our delegates $17,640 per year plus $210 per day, placing Virginia in the bottom third nationally in legislative compensation.

It is a very sexist conceit that 140 people and their support staff can, in just a couple of months, remedy the many pressing and evolving problems that require thorough research, analysis and thoughtful deliberation, rather than hasty responses that seem easy but sometimes fails spectacularly when put into practice.

That said, any fair evaluation must conclude that the final work product is better than one would expect from such a system. In the roughly 20 years I spent reporting on and analyzing the General Assembly from the inside, I was impressed by how well overworked committee staff performed under the crippling stress of impossible deadlines, especially those handling the budget.

The current dilemma arises from the breakneck pace of time-strapped legislation, coupled with a bipartisan misjudgment on the sensitive issue of the benefits of higher education to the families of those killed, wounded, missing in action, or held captive during military service. .

More times than I can count, I was among a handful of journalists who stayed into the wee hours of the morning with House and Senate money committee staff as they guided a handful of bleary-eyed lawmakers through the negotiation. of a compromise on a new state budget. After a handshake sealed the deal, those wizards of money, math, policy and technology toiled in the dark long after dawn to put everything into its final form, printing and collating 140 thick binders known as “half sheets” and carefully placing them on the desk of each legislator in the House and Senate. It’s one of the most amazing feats I’ve ever seen a team accomplish.

The current dilemma arises from the breakneck pace of time-strapped legislation, coupled with a bipartisan misjudgment on the sensitive issue of the benefits of higher education to the families of those killed, wounded, missing in action, or held captive during military service. .

He Mercury reported that the costs of the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program, if plotted on a grid, have skyrocketed like a hockey stick over the past six years due to rising enrollment. The number of participants quadrupled (from 1,400 in 2019 to 6,400 last year) and proportionately increased the state’s cost to nearly $65 million in the 2022-23 academic year, up 444% from the 2018-19 school year.

Lawmakers expressed alarm at the rapid cost increases. A stand-alone bill that would have moderated the VMSDEP was introduced in this year’s regular session of the General Assembly, but it was converted into a study resolution. After missing the deadline to enact the state budget on the adjournment date of this year’s regular session scheduled for the seventh year in a row, they went to a special session to reach an agreement on the two-year, $188 billion financial plan. of commonwealth dollars through June 2026.

A closed-door conclave of senators and delegates introduced an amendment to their final version of the budget that imposes new eligibility rules for the VMSDEP. They limit benefits to undergraduate studies and exclude postgraduate studies, such as medicine or law. Additionally, they restrict them to Virginia residents and require participants to apply for federal programs that help with income-based higher education costs to mitigate VMSDEP expenses.

The compromise was approved by House and Senate budget negotiators (led by Democrats but including Republicans) and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. What he didn’t have was any warning. to (and certainly no entry of) affected stakeholders: spouses and dependents of disabled or deceased members of the armed forces. When details became public days before special sessions on May 13 to enact the overdue budget, all hell broke loose, as it should have.

The optics are discouraging. Here’s the government of Virginia, home to the largest number of active-duty military personnel per capita of any state, making cuts to a program that helps the loved ones of those who paid a profound price – including the supreme price – to defend their rights. country. It’s true that costs are rising, but these clumsy reductions to VMSDEP in the context of a $188 billion biennial budget don’t pass the smell test.

Did they really believe it would go unnoticed or, at worst, would they only encounter reluctant acquiescence?

Was a lack of foresight Is the loss of more than three centuries of collective legislative experience and hard-won wisdom partly to blame after a tsunami of retirements in 2023 (14 delegates, six senators, including a half-dozen with 20 or more years in office )?

It’s hard to imagine that even a rookie legislator wouldn’t recognize a threat to the VMSDEP as a hornet’s nest, and now that it’s been treated like a piñata, stung policymakers want to rescind the limits. Legislative leaders agreed Thursday to return to the Capitol on the 28th, two days before the new state fiscal year begins and the 2025-26 biennial budget takes effect, to do so.

Initially, Democratic legislative leaders expressed hesitation about rushing back to Richmond to amend the recently passed budget, noting that current VMSDEP participants and new enrollees would not be affected by the change and therefore corrective measures could be deferred until January and the 2025 ordinary session.

Because the special session that was convened on May 13 to late approve the budget went into recess instead of being adjourned, there is no need to convene a second special session, something the General Assembly has required three times since 2018 to finish its work. There have only been eight years this century in which the Virginia General Assembly has not had at least one special session.

It’s time to abandon the threadbare presumption that Virginia isn’t being forced to formulate and revise policies throughout the year. Why not do it at a more deliberate and thoughtful pace rather than in fits and starts caused by a schedule that predates indoor plumbing?