West Virginia colleges and universities have had to absorb significant budget cuts over the last several years as the state budget has tightened. Higher education has been cut at least $60 million since 2011, and more than half of those cuts have been absorbed by WVU.

University officials say that if you compare funding now to 1997, after factoring in inflation, the state appropriation to higher ed has just 45 percent of the buying power it did 20 years ago.

College and university officials realize they are soft targets for cuts because they have the ability to raise tuition and fees to offset some of the reductions, but they would at least like to have something in return, which is why HB 2542 is high on the priority list this legislative session.

The bill would significantly streamline some of the more onerous employment rules, giving the colleges more flexibility in hiring, firing and other work-related and employee classification issues.

For example, a key provision eliminates the current requirement that when layoffs occur, the least senior employees are the first to go. This protection is popular with many classified staff, but WVU, in an informational handout, says these “bumping rights” are “counterproductive and not an efficient way to address workforce issues.”

House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa (R-Jefferson) says the change makes sense. “It would eliminate those bumping and recall rights and enable institutions to look very closely at the qualifications of the individuals they have on staff and also be able to take into consideration documented job performance as they’re looking to make those decisions,” he said on Talkline Tuesday.

Another provision of HB 2542 eliminates the requirement that determines the ratio of classified to non-classified employees at the institution. Instead of unique state rules and definitions, the bill follows the definitions of the Fair Labor Standards Act and generally simplifies the categories to hourly-pay for classified and salary for non-classified employees beginning with new hires.

Espinosa says these and other provisions of the bill are necessary as colleges and universities search for ways to become more efficient. “Our higher education institutions can use the same logic that is used routinely in the private sector. You really pick the individuals based on what the needs of the institution are.”

West Virginia colleges and universities are under increasing budget pressures. Yes, they can raise tuition and fees, but if they push too hard they will price themselves out of the marketplace and further indebt young West Virginians.

HB 2542 is a legitimate response to the cuts. If higher ed needs to operate more efficiently, then give the schools the tools to accomplish that. The bill is on the agenda in the House Education Committee this morning at 9 o’clock.

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