CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's happening to the wallet in your pocket, and it's Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature's fault. They just don't want to own it. A tax increase. To a group that can least afford it.
When the state announced budget cuts to higher education, the administrations of all the affected schools scrambled to find ways to keep things running. And the first place they had to go was tuition increases. Nobody blames them. It's that or start throwing people out of work, shutting down programs, and wreaking general havoc on our already weakened system of higher learning.
But, what, exactly, is a tuition increase but a tax on families and students? After all, isn't the definition of a tax increase the transfer of real money from your pocketbook to the state's?
So, with the announcement of a smaller state budget came quiet approval for a transfer of those costs to you and me. I say it's irresponsible for not owning it, but it's more insidious than that. It's the hubris of the expectation.
That people who want access to a four-year degree will, well, just have to pay for it. Eat it, if you will.
"Oh, well, it's just too bad. Don't blame us poor politicians. We're just balancing the budget. It's not that we don't value higher education."
Stop right there. That's where we the people should stop their lies in their tracks. This decision, forced though it may be, lays bare the reality that West Virginia may not value higher learning as much as we hoped.
Budgets are moral documents. They reflect our collective priorities, or at least they should. Tomblin may rightly claim he has no choice. Declining revenues force poor to awful choices. But, it's a tax increase. And nobody's talking about it. And it comes at a time when we know for certain that businesses don't locate to West Virginia because we do not provide an adequately trained workforce. Tuition increases at a time when we as a nation are wrestling with the possibility that higher education is on the fast track to becoming a special privilege for the well-to-do.
These are dollars that really matter. I teach these students and they struggle. They work. They want a better life. And West Virginia lets them down.
Colleges are being asked to do the impossible. Educate students with lip service support from the state at a state sponsored institution. There is something inherently dysfunctional about a state treasury that depends so heavily on fossil fuel taxes, even after 30 years of projected, predicted, nay, expected, declines.
Diversification of the tax base, or its failure, resides squarely with West Virginia politicians. The ease with which they pass their responsibilities off as unavoidable, outside their control, is remarkably arrogant.
While admittedly a self-interested supporter of advanced learning, I remain circumspect. It's easier to be an armchair critic than a lawmaker making the cuts. But, if we're going to say we value higher education, now is the time to put money behind our words. Now is the most important time. And what we see now is a failure of leadership because higher education is being sacrificed and mercilessly. To some who do not value higher learning, it may seem a good thing. But, that cave dweller thinking is increasingly tone deaf to the modern demands of the workforce -- well informed, communicative, innovative people who do the work. Now more than ever, we need to pay for it.
Swindell is a professor of ethics. He can be reached at chris_swind...@hotmail.com.