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Officials try to tackle rising education costs

How will we fund higher education?

It's a relevant question this year, as West Virginia's public colleges and universities cope with a 7.5 percent cut in state funding. And it looks like it will continue to be relevant in the coming year: state agencies have asked government agencies to again submit budgets reflecting another 7.5 percent budget cut for next year.

Those 7.5 percent across-the-board cuts, the result of a tough fiscal climate in West Virginia, have led to hand-wringing in West Virginia's institutions of higher education as colleges and universities try to make up for the budget gaps.

The cuts, and the general subject of financing higher education in West Virginia, were the subject of a public forum Thursday on Marshall University's South Charleston Campus. It followed two other similar forums held by Marshall this week in Huntington.

The idea was to bring state lawmakers face-to-face with members of the higher education and local communities for discussion and a brainstorming session of sorts. The public was invited and local lawmakers were asked to attend and sit on a panel - Thursday's forum was attended by Senators Erik Wells and  Corey Palumbo, and delegate Nancy Guthrie, all democrats from Kanawha County.

Marshall University President Stephen Kopp called the forum "a conversation about the future of public funding for higher education."

That conversation included a slew of ideas about new funding sources that could benefit the state and be funneled toward higher education. But the lawmakers on hand also served to provide a reality check on the feasibility of driving funding toward higher education -- usually, they said, because of the political realities.

Ideas floated Thursday evening included widening the state sales tax to include online sales, new taxes on natural gas and coal, increasing the tax on soda and expanding it to include all of the state's medical schools (right now the decades-old, one-cent tax benefits only WVU's medical school) and instituting a higher tax on cigarettes.

The feasibility of those ideas, as judged by the lawmakers on hand, was varied.

Guthrie said she does see an opportunity for West Virginia as industry moves in to mine the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in the northern part of the state. She thinks taxes on that gas seem possible, and could be a boon for the state.

"I think we may have missed our opportunity with coal," she said. "But we have not missed our opportunity with natural gas ... and I wouldn't be surprised if you saw an increase in the tax on gas."

The same goes for a cigarette tax. Palumbo said he believes that state lawmakers may now be primed to raise the tax on cigarettes - West Virginia's current cigarette tax, at 55 cents, is one of the lowest in the nation. The national average is around $1.50.

"The problem is that there are a lot of problem clamoring for that money if we get it," he said.

That was another theme in the lawmaker's conversation: with a 7.5 percent cut across the board, all state agencies are hurting for money and looking for increased funding. It's a political battle to funnel that money toward anything, and higher education is no different, they said.

"We need to make a strong case to the governor that higher education can't afford any more cuts, period," Guthrie said. "Higher education can't do this and function. If you want educated West Virginians, that's it."

Wells urged the audience to play politics. 

"Not just the presidents of the colleges and universities but all of you, show up at the Capitol," he said. "Show up en masse and you'll put on the political pressure. Because you have that political pressure, you just haven't exerted that political pressure."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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