SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From the coal excise tax to Internet downloads to the nationwide economic downturn, the "discussion" for how to save West Virginia higher education funding from cutbacks raised complex issues during a forum hosted Tuesday by Marshall University.
The forum was the third and final installment of a series to allow public input on the across-the-board budget cuts that slashed 7.5 percent of the state-appropriated funds for higher education institutions. Legislators and members of the Higher Education Policy Commission were invited to attend, and three legislators did -- Sens. Erik Wells and Corey Palumbo and Delegate Nancy Guthrie, all D-Kanawha.
Wells, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the discussion on how to fund higher education was one of the more important discussions for lawmakers at the state level.
"If you really want to know about politics, it's in education," Wells said. "It is the most convoluted, complex area -- I think -- in state government, but it's really, critically important for the state."
West Virginia has the lowest percentage of residents who hold a college degree in the nation at 25.6 percent. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018, West Virginia needs to produce an additional 20,000 college degrees to sustain its current economy, and 51 percent of West Virginia jobs will
require an associate degree or higher by 2020.
"If we could figure out a way not to cut that budget, ever, and increase it every year, we'd do so, but we're in some tough economic times," Guthrie said. "None of us can depend on Washington, and so we're sort of left to our own devices. The only two options that seem to be available are to raise taxes or to cut programs. I don't think that's a great option, and it's one I would like to avoid if we could."
The panel discussed the feasibility of introducing a pop tax to generate revenue for MU's medical school. The state introduced a similar tax in 1951 to fund the West Virginia University medical school, and it amounts to one cent per roughly 16 ounces and generates roughly $14 million in revenue yearly.
According to Palumbo, the issue with the pop tax is that it is an uncommon tax to impose, and therefore difficult to pass in the Legislature.
"One of the big hesitations on expanding the pop tax, was that when we discussed it back in 2009, there was only one other state that had that tax," he said. "Whether that has changed in the last four or five years."
Palumbo also discussed the possibility of imposing a higher tobacco tax in West Virginia. While that solution will generate revenue, the issue becomes what agencies receive the bulk of that revenue, he said.