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.