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Higher education forum raises future budget discussion

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"Cuts are never easy, regardless of who's receiving them," Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said at a recent public meeting about budget cuts to higher education.

With the likelihood of increased budget cuts in higher education, Marshall University President Stephen Kopp joined faculty, administrators, students and community members at the Marshall University South Charleston campus library Nov. 7. 

In Huntington and Point Pleasant, two similar forums occurred, all convened by Kopp to draw public attention to the current 7.5 percent cut in state funding and the anticipated round of budget cuts for the next fiscal year. All three forums were moderated by Beth Vorhees, news director at West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Following the money

Current tax revenues are running about four percent behind last year's, a loss largely blamed on declines in the state's ailing coal industry. The state's gambling revenue also is down, primarily a result of competition from new casinos in neighboring states.

The biggest item in the state budget is spending on the state's kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, which currently receive 52 cents of every budget dollar. That leaves 48 percent to finance everything else, including higher education. By law, public education is constitutionally protected from budget cutting. Higher education is not.

Currently, higher education receives between 11 and 12 cents of each budget dollar.

Dead ends

Although proposals have been brought before the Legislature to increase taxes on soft drinks, liquor, beer and tobacco to raise money for higher education, they have not been well received of late.

"Anything you can purchase in a convenience store becomes an issue," Wells said. "The argument is borders."

Wells said businesses fear customers will merely go across the border in order to avoid paying higher taxes on products.

West Virginia's boundary is about 1,170 miles long, and its unique shape links it to the borders of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky; with four counties in the Northern Panhandle and eight counties in the Eastern Panhandle jutting between two states.

What to do?

Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said what may be somewhat of a savior is the development of Marcellus Shale drilling and that the establishment of a future fund could help in generating revenue. 

But Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he thinks it's going to be very difficult for that plan to come to fruition in just one year.

"The problem is having to cut on one hand and then sock away money for the future somewhere else when there are people who need that money right now," Palumbo said.

During the Huntington forum, Delegate Kevin Craig, D-Cabell, predicted the expansion of Medicaid and the costs associated with the Affordable Care Act will put a huge hole in the state budget.

In response to the argument that while the benefits of a future fund wouldn't appear in the present, but future, Eldon Larsen, Marshall University faculty senate chair, issued a statement of his own.

"I would suggest to you that higher education is the future, and you don't set aside money somewhere else that's unknown," he said. "You know you have a good investment right now and that's the future of West Virginia, and it depends a lot on higher education."

Larsen also said a 7.5 percent across-the-board cut says nothing about priorities or differentiating the merits and importance of each individual program. 

"I've been here for 30 years, and you've been doing the same thing for 30 years," he said. "Right now, we've got to decide priorities. When you sit there and you cut across the board, tell me where that is responsibility? 

"Tell me, where are the hard decisions with the across-the-board cuts? It says nothing about the importance of different programs. They're not all equal."

In response, Palumbo acknowledged that the only sort of prioritizing in an across-the-board cut is in those agencies that are exempt from cuts. 

"They are not equal priority or weight and it would be a better thing for us to do to judge each one on their own merits and their own significance and deal with it that way," Palumbo said. "All the agencies under the cut are not equal and should not be treated that way."

In the 11 years Palumbo has been in the Legislature, he said the issue has never been approached that way.

Before resuming his seat, Larsen issued a strong statement to the panel members, tinged with a slight reprimand.

"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 make the hard decisions and decide what's important instead of treating everything the same, when it's not? I think the Legislature needs to straighten up and make the hard decisions." 

James E. Casto contributed to this report.