State budget impasse ‘terrifying’ for higher ed leaders

By Samuel Speciale, Staff Writer

The state of West Virginia doesn’t have enough money.

That much is certain, higher education leaders said Friday during a meeting in South Charleston where they expressed concerns over the state’s $238.8 million funding shortfall and a budget impasse the Legislature and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin must resolve by June 30.

“This is a terrifying time for all the good things we’ve worked for over the years,” said Higher Education Commissioner Kay Goodwin, who also serves as the state’s secretary of education and the arts.

“And it’s all in the guise of drinking raw milk and downsizing government,” she went on to say.

Higher Education Policy Commission officials on Friday were candid in their criticism of the Legislature’s failure, thus far, to pass a balanced budget.

However, they agreed institutions shouldn’t blame the Legislature if university budget cuts are proposed to close funding gaps.

“We can’t wait and sit back to see what happens,” Goodwin said. “It’s going to happen.”

The inevitability of budget cuts means the state’s lawmakers must be reminded of higher education’s importance to the future of West Virginia, said Commissioner Kathy Eddy.

“The numbers are the numbers, and cuts will be made — probably on the back of our universities,” she said, adding that institutions need to do what they can to make things work.

Due to the state’s budget woes, higher education funding has been slashed more than $120 million since 2008. It’s not the only branch of government served with cuts, though.

All colleges and universities, as well as most state agencies, had their budgets cut by 4 percent in the last year.

West Virginia’s fiscal troubles are more complicated than a lack of money: it’s the result of a series of tax cuts, combined with low energy prices and the flailing coal industry.

While the budget impasse and the threat of additional cuts loom over universities as they prepare budgets for next year, commissioners said leaders need to have contingency plans.

“Many of our institutions are on edge,” Eddy said, adding that additional cuts, which she believes to be likely, will “put them incredibly close to going out of business.”

Budget cuts could throw the entire system into disarray and result in universities ladening students with higher tuition, which is used to offset reductions in state appropriations.

Jessica Tice, vice chancellor for communications and public affairs for the state Higher Education Policy Commission, told the Gazette-Mail last week that the uncertainty of the situation could deter some students from enrolling in college this fall. The state already has trouble keeping students, losing nearly 4,000 in the last five years.

“Students and their families need time to budget and prepare for the cost of college,” she said. “And it would be an added challenge for them to face additional unexpected costs because of delayed state budget decisions.”

The budget can be balanced without further cutting higher education though, said Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor Paul Hill. He noted that Tomblin presented a balanced budget to the Legislature. His budget was balanced by tax increases on tobacco sales and telecommunications.

“It’s possible,” he said.

The commission’s quarterly meeting will continue Friday. Its members are considering increasing the award amount for the state’s Higher Education Grant by $100, among other business.

Reach Samuel Speciale at sam.speciale@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @samueljspeciale on Twitter.