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Solutions to higher education funding cuts sought

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.

"When you open that up, everybody underneath the capitol dome is going to say, 'hey, there is new revenue. Let's grab that new revenue.' That's what we face," Wells said.

Charging state taxes on online purchases is similarly improbable, he said, because states would need to agree on what to tax and how to tax it - although Amazon.com recently announced it would start charging sales tax on purchases made in West Virginia.

When questioned whether an increase to the state's coal severance tax could generate enough funding, Guthrie said that solution, "for reasonable and logical people," might sound feasible, but the reality is different.

"When you get up to the Legislature, and you realize that you're going to be rained upon by all of these lobbyists that, quite frankly, could buy and sell all of us six times over before we got out the door, it becomes a difficult problem," she said. "I'm not saying it's impossible, and I think we may have missed our opportunity with coal, but we have not missed our opportunity with gas."

Some faculty members in the audience said they were frustrated by the current situation.

"These meetings are supposed to be a way for you to get input from us -- you said explicitly that you need our ideas -- and some fairly reasonable, straightforward ideas have been presented here, and the reaction is, 'well, we can't do that. That's not possible politically,'" said Dan Holbrook, chairman of Marshall's history department.

"I guess I'm saddened that our elected representatives find this sort of thing impossible because they're -- let me put this harshly -- 'held hostage' by some lobbyists, when the vast majority of the population, if it's presented correctly, would absolutely support paying slightly more for goods and services if we got some broad-based future economic development that included support for higher education."

The proposed "Future Fund" was also discussed. The fund, generated on oil and gas revenues, is based on a similar idea set up by North Dakota lawmakers to save some revenues from that state's booming natural gas industry.

Eldon Larsen, faculty senate chairman at Marshall, said the state's decision for an across-the-board cut showed an inability to prioritize, and a future fund for education does nothing to bolster students and educators hoping to improve futures now.

"We have to decide what's most important in this state. Nobody in the legislature is willing to make the hard decisions because it's 'too political,'" he said. "When are you going to stop being political -- and I know you can't -- and start making the hard decisions about what's important, instead of treating everything the same when it's not."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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