West Virginia editorial roundup
Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
Charleston Gazette on state politicians’ promises:
Warning politicians not to over-promise is a bit like telling gawkers not to loiter around a train derailment. It seems obvious, but they’re going to do it anyway, even if it jeopardizes their safety.
Before the November general election, there was a big statewide push from the Republican Party, Gov. Jim Justice and Senate President Mitch Carmichael included, to sell the story of West Virginia as a state on the comeback, and laying down some incentives to try and maintain their majority in the House of Delegates and Senate.
From that blitz came a promise to give teachers and public school service personnel another 5 percent raise (while conveniently ignoring the narrative of the strike those employees endured in order to get the same thing in early 2018) and pledges to revisit a bill to provide tuition-free community and technical college (a bill the GOP said it had to abandon to pay the teachers during the 2018 session).
West Virginians need to know going into the 2019 legislative session, which begins Wednesday, the promises are already exceeding what the state can likely afford. That’s according to legislators and other state officials who took part in Friday’s annual Legislative Lookahead, sponsored by the West Virginia Press Association.
The 5 percent raise would cost the state about $140 million, and officials had pledged another $100 million to help shore up the Public Employees Insurance Agency. The tuition program would cost about $7 million.
Add to that plans to eliminate income taxes on Social Security retirement benefits ($100 million in revenue) and a possible bill to place repealing the state inventory tax on business equipment on the ballot, which would cost counties a combined $135 million in revenue annually, and it starts to get dicey.
State revenue is performing above expectations, but it’s unclear how long that will last, especially with so much of the income tied to construction projects that will be winding down over the course of the year. Previous tax cuts have also failed to produce the revenue growth that was promised.
Fiscal conservatives can say they’re going to look for areas to cut, but there aren’t that many agencies — aside from maybe the Supreme Court, where the Legislature has gained some limited control of spending — left to shake down.
A political promise isn’t the “nobody expects them to do it” that it used to be. The teachers, who deserve everything they’re getting and more, have shown they mean business, and there’s no going back on giving them another raise and putting more money into PEIA once that was offered up. So the Legislature should at least be prepared to fulfill that one, and this time, they can honestly take the credit for it. As for the rest of it, promise at your own risk.
The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington on college tuition increases:
The Blue Ribbon Commission looking at changes to West Virginia’s higher education system is considering a proposal to remove the cap on how much state-supported colleges and universities can increase tuition from year to year.
This is a bad idea for several reasons.
One: As noted in a recent article in The Charleston Gazette-Mail, a law passed in 2017 allows schools to increase tuition by as much as 10 percent in a single year without getting approval from the Higher Education Policy Commission. The law also states that increases may not exceed 21 percent over a three-year period without HEPC approval. Before 2017, the annual cap was 5 percent.
As noted in the article, the average four-year college tuition for in-state students has increased 57 percent in the past decade. It’s gone up 21 percent in just the past five years and now stands at $7,500 this academic year. Meanwhile, West Virginia’s median household income over the past decade has increased only slightly.
Which brings us to the second reason: Many students have to borrow money to attend higher ed. Schools have few incentives to rein in student borrowing. They can add programs and bureaucracy and sports and build buildings and figure they merely need to increase tuition by 21 percent over three years. The costs get passed along to students.
Marty Becker, a member of the West Virginia University Board of Governors and a member of the Blue Ribbon governance subcommittee, said, “I don’t think any board of governors is going to increase tuition more than they absolutely have to because they know that it has a detrimental impact on enrollment of students.
“I think there is some marketplace constraint that you have to rely upon, as opposed to an artificial standard.”
A 21 percent increase over five years shows that students are still willing to borrow whatever amount they need to obtain that degree, so West Virginia’s higher ed system has not yet hit that marketplace constraint. Do we really want to find it the hard way when students are priced out of the system?
The third problem: The West Virginia Legislature. Raising the annual cap on tuition increases in 2017 allowed the Legislature to reduce its support of higher education. It in effect gave lawmakers cover to cut funding because students were willing to borrow money to make up the difference.
The public expects much from higher ed. Until recently higher ed had a near-monopoly on career training after high school. The West Virginia college and university system now has competition from the community and technical college system. At one time the CTC schools operated as divisions of the four-year schools, but they were separated several years ago.
The CTC system offers degrees and certificate programs that are more vocationally oriented than the HEPC system. At the same time, there is growing recognition that a four-year degree does not mean a person will earn more than a blue-collar worker. When a welder makes more than a teacher, or when stories get around about debt-ridden college graduates making less than a debt-free electrician, people get the idea that there are other options.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Our economy needs blue-collar workers as much as it needs white-collar ones. Options provide competition that the university system needs.
... Schools need restrictions on what they can charge. Removing these restrictions would be bad for students and bad for West Virginia.
The Parkersburg News and Sentinel on the state’s financial concerns and Gov. Jim Justice announcing he’ll run for re-election next year:
Just two days before he was to deliver Wednesday’s State of the State speech, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced he will run for re-election in 2020. No surprise there.
“The further I go, the more I believe just this: I believe there’s work still to be done,” Justice explained Monday.
Despite grand announcements designed to allay such worries, concerns about West Virginia’s finances remain — with good reason.
It is possible we continue to spend beyond our means.
It is true, as Justice points out, that income for the state’s general revenue fund continues to exceed projections on which the budget was based. Analysts expect the Mountain State to end the current fiscal year with about $300 million in the bank.
But most West Virginians can relate to the idea of having already planned to spend money they expect to be just around the corner. Lawmakers and Justice have done just that.
Promises already have been made to spend about two-thirds of that amount on public employee pay raises and the Public Employees Insurance Agency. The “fix” demanded by so many depends on that money materializing, and continuing to do so. State law requires some of the surplus to be deposited into the emergency Rainy Day fund.
The bottom line is a $300 million surplus — even if revenue continues to do that well in the future — is far from an insurance policy against fiscal woes.
Let us hope Justice shows he understands that...