Heated words continue over higher education funding

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Higher education funding is the latest battleground in the war of words between Gov. Jim Justice and state Republican legislators.

Bickering has continued since Justice reluctantly let a state budget cutting higher education become law without his signature, and it kicked up again after West Virginia and Marshall universities announced tuition increases last week.

Justice has repeatedly criticized legislators for the budget cuts, including to higher education. Republican leaders have said the effects of the cuts are being exaggerated and that they won’t let the criticism go unanswered.

“The governor has said — his phrase — he’s going to go out on the mountaintop, and he’s not happy with the cuts that had to be made because he didn’t get his way on all the taxes he wanted to raise,” House Speaker Tim Armstead said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

“I’m going on the mountaintop too. I’m not going to allow the Legislature to be blamed for things it did not cause and certainly didn’t cause to the degree that they’re being done. We’re going to set the facts straight. We’re not going to let this kind of disinformation go without a response.”

Armstead later Monday made a lengthy post on his Facebook page, taking issue with Justice’s recent comments.

Tim Armstead

Armstead wrote, “I have always had the greatest respect for the office of the Governor of West Virginia. I have had the honor to work in that office for both Governor Moore and Governor Underwood. Whether I agreed with or voted for the person holding the office I have tried to show respect for the person and the office.

“I have tried to show the same respect to Governor Justice. When he called me and my fellow legislators Blockheads and Knuckleheads I didn’t call him names. When he compared me to a blowup doll and said he wanted to buy me a one way plane ticket simply because I wouldn’t agree with his enormous tax increases I didn’t call him names. When he insulted the people who endured last year’s horrific flooding by turning on the light in the dome as a political stunt, I didn’t call him names. When he embarrassed our state with his cow dung stunt, I didn’t call him names. When he makes fun of my Christian faith by saying I have a ‘mission from God’ to do certain things, I don’t call him names.

“But there is a line I will not allow this Governor or any Governor to cross — and that is not telling the people of this state the truth.”

Armstead then wrote that the 9 percent tuition increase approved by Marshall and the 5 percent tuition increase approved by West Virginia University outpace the budget cuts approved by the Legislature.

“The numbers just don’t click. I just think there’s a lot of trying to point fingers here that simply isn’t true,” Armstead, R-Kanawha, said today on “Talkline.”

“I think when we came out of the budget session, these were much more modest than we thought we were going to have to go. I think it’s wrong for the presidents of colleges and universities to say we’ve got to do this because the Legislature forced our hand. That’s just not true.”

Higher education took about a $16 million cut in the current budget, out of about $400 million in overall higher education spending.

West Virginia University takes the biggest reduction at about $7.4 million in reduced state spending from the prior year. WVU goes from $110 million in state funding this past year to about $103 million for the coming year.

The WVU medical school is subject to a spending reduction of $1.4 million. It goes from $21.4 million in state funds to $20 million.

That’s a portion of WVU’s overall budget. Counting tuition and fees and other revenue sources, WVU brings in about $1 billion in total revenue. So compared to overall revenue, the state funding cut amounts to a little less than a percent.

Marshall University is cut from $48.4 million in fiscal 2017 state spending to $44.5 for the coming year. That’s a $3.9 million cut — or about 8.1 percent — of state funding.

Marshall’s medical school funding is reduced by $267,000, or 2 percent.

Marshall’s total revenue, counting tuition, fees and other revenue, is about $266 million a year. So the total percent cut is 1.58 percent.

John O’Neal

Another Republican leader in the House of Delegates, John O’Neal, wrote an op-ed calculating that the 5-percent increase at WVU is expected to bring in roughly $23 million. “So officials in Morgantown enacted a $23 million tuition hike to close the gap for an $8.7 million cut,” wrote O’Neal, R-Raleigh.

Governor Justice, also speaking on “Talkline,” blamed legislators like Armstead and O’Neal for the higher education cuts.

“The bottom line is, when are the O’Neals or the Armsteads going to quit playing this garbage game? At the end of the day, what did they do? They did nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing. All they did was cut our people and hurt our people,” Justice said today.

Then, referencing WVU President Gordon Gee and Marshall President Jerome Gilbert, the governor went on today, “Now Gordon Gee and Doctor Gilbert surely know a lot more about their universities than Armstead and O’Neal.”

Gov. Jim Justice

Justice, as he has said in multiple venues over the past couple of weeks, said education could have been fully funded if Republicans and Democrats in the House of Delegates had accepted the budget proposal he favored.

Both groups objected to personal income tax reductions in the plan that all budgeting models showed would have created budget holes in future years as further income tax cuts were triggered.

The last version of that plan had four years of 5 percent reductions, triggered in a way that most thought was less aggressive than prior incarnations.

“The truth is real simple. We had this resolved and done. Armstead was on a mission from God to not raise the consumer sales tax, and the Senate wanted to do tax reform, and we got that watered down and watered down,” Justice said today.

“What they both did is they went on their merry way. And at the end of the day, what we ended up with was massive, massive, massive pain to the common everyday people.”

Justice continued to blame the political ambition of legislators for their rejection of his revenue proposal.

“The people that are there in the Legislature are willing to do whatever they want to do to get re-elected at the cost of the people, and I don’t like that,” Justice said.

Armstead countered that Republican legislators were up front from the beginning about the need to cut from some of the big three state government spending areas of education, healthcare and higher education. He said a good deal of thought went into making those cuts carefully.

He said legislators tried to make cuts to other areas — like an estimated $15 million cut of funding that supports greyhound racing — that would have reduced pressure to cut areas like higher education.

“Budgeting is a set of priorities,” Armstead said. “We did some things in the Legislature such as cutting the subsidies to dog racing. The governor vetoed that. Then he comes out and says ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have cut higher ed.’ Well, we wouldn’t have had to have made these cuts or at least not to the degree we had to make them if he hadn’t vetoed that bill.

“The governor apparently decided the dog subsidies are more important than higher education.”

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