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Statehouse Beat: Charging full-time students

A proposed pilot project to charge all state college tuition based on credit hours each student is taking (SB508) may sound innocent enough, but an internal Higher Education Policy Commission memo suggests it could be a major windfall for four-year colleges — and a major hit in the wallet for full-time students.

Currently, full-time students pay per-semester tuition, regardless of if they take 12, 15, 18, or even 21 credit hours.

According to the memo, 76 percent of students at the state's four-year colleges are full-time, ranging from 51 percent of students at Glenville State to 87 percent at West Virginia University.

On average, a student taking 15 hours of classes would pay an additional $1,422 in tuition per semester under the credit-hour tuition plan, while that additional amount would go up to $2,843 for a student taking 18 credit hours.

"This is a sizeable increase which will not be covered by state grant dollars," the memorandum notes.

For four-year colleges, however, it would be a sizeable windfall, estimated at $124.4 million a year for HEPC schools.

Most schools would see revenue increases ranging from $1.8 million to $2.7 million a year, while Concord would see an extra $5.1 million; Shepherd, $7.6 million; Marshall, $15.9 million; and WVU, a whopping $73.8 million. (To their credit, WVU officials have opted out of the proposed pilot project.)

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Speaking of, as much as I complained about the lack of any statewide public opinion polling in the 2012 election cycle, kudos to Curtis Wilkerson's Orion Strategies for actually conducting an in-state poll.

One question pertinent to the topic at hand asked those surveyed if they would support converting the Promise Scholarship into a forgivable loan program, with one year of tuition forgiven for each year the scholar remained to work in West Virginia after graduation.

Results: yes, 47 percent; no, 30 percent; undecided, 22 percent.

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One provision that seems to be missing from Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's draft policy for hiring outside counsel: There's no "pay for play" prohibition; i.e., no policy to prohibit lawyers who have contributed either to Morrisey's election campaign or to fundraisers to pay down his campaign debts from bidding on state legal work.

I put the question to Morrisey's well-compensated flack, Beth Ryan, who sent this reply: "Given the constitutional concerns and free speech issues raised in the imposition of campaign contribution bans, we believe it is more appropriate to focus on ways to make the outside counsel hiring process more transparent and objective. This draft policy represents a significant step forward for the state in transparency, fairness, and combating the perception of pay to play."

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In what had to be the most entertaining debate of the session to date, Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, took on Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, for advocating for the repeal of state laws requiring various government records, such as school board's financial reports, be published in local newspapers. Wells suggested that's an antiquated notion in the Internet era.

Barnes took the city slicker to task, noting that a great many rural West Virginians don't have access to high-speed Internet, and many wouldn't use it if they had it, preferring to get their news and information the old-fashioned way.

Now comes the 2013 edition of the West Virginia Press Association's Newspaper Directory, which seems to back up Barnes' assertion, showing that newspapers in the state are holding their own comparatively well, with 21 daily newspapers (including college papers The Daily Athenaeum and The Parthenon) and 58 weeklies still churning along.

The Gazette, of course, has the largest daily circulation, followed in distant second by the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. The Beckley Register-Herald is third, followed by the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, with the Morgantown Dominion-Post rounding out the top five.

Also encouraging, given national trends, is that four of the top five papers have Statehouse reporters at the Capitol this session, with Parkersburg being the exception.

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Finally, the death this week of Jae Spears, the first and only woman to serve as Senate majority leader, and chairwoman of the powerful Senate Finance and Government Organization committees, reminded me how many remarkable women were serving in the Senate during the first session I covered, in 1990.

In addition to Spears, who chaired Government Organization that session, there was Education Chairwoman Sondra Lucht, whose fierce determination made up for her small stature; the legendary Thais Blatnik; Donna Boley, who was minority leader by virtue of being the only Republican in the Senate; Charlotte Pritt, who would become the Democratic nominee for governor six years later; and Martha Wehrle, who as a Vassar and Harvard grad commanded great respect among her colleagues. (I always likened her demeanor to Mrs. Pynchon on "Lou Grant.")

Alas, of those only Sen. Boley continues to serve. She is currently the only woman among the 34 members of the Senate.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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