CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After a couple of years of controversial cuts, West Virginia’s higher education system finally got some relief during the last legislative session.
But that relief could dissipate with the possibility of a $100 million budget cut across state government.
“Last year there was this reinvestment in higher education that we were excited about. That reinvestment still hadn’t gotten to the numbers we were at in 2013, but it was significant progress,” said higher education Chancellor Sarah Armstrong Tucker.
“We were thankful for that. This cut will certainly affect that. But we also know we’re state agencies and institutions that receive public money.”
The possible cut for state agencies was announced Friday by state Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy. The cuts, if necessary, would apply to the current fiscal year — even though the state is only four months into it.
Hardy did note that there might be flexibility to change the amount of the proposed cut, depending on each agency’s situation.
The current General Fund is about $4.6 billion, although about two thirds of that is obligatory spending.
So the proposed cuts are a small portion of the total, but they still could be a challenge.
“It would be unreasonable to expect that there would be zero impact of reducing a budget by a hundred million dollars,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.
West Virginia’s higher education system has already complained of pain because of cuts in recent years.
Two years ago, when state government was in a budget crisis, the higher education system absorbed a $16 million cut.
Over the last few years, the state institutions saw a combined 17.5 percent in budget cuts. State spending for higher education is about $360 million. That’s the third highest area of spending, after K-12 education and health.
Senator Roman Prezioso )D-Marion)is the Minority Leader and member of the Finance Committee and says budget issues have always been difficult.
“I was criticized a lot of times for not funding certain programs, and there were a lot of good programs that came to me that should have been funded, but you just don’t have that kind of money,” Prezioso said,”Especially when you operate in the economy we do with the severance taxes.”
“That’s the low-hanging fruit. That’s the only place you can go to get the money you need,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion.
“Economists have told us long into this process we’re in a decline and we just didn’t listen,” Prezioso said.
Prezioso was already worried about two colleges in his district, Fairmont State University and Pierpont Community & Technical College.
“My two institutions can’t take a cut. They’re in serious trouble,” Prezioso said. “Pierpont is living on the edge.”
This past year, with seeming financial stability, state officials gave a break to some of the colleges.
About $13 million more was spread across four-year institutions, with another $5 million going to community and technical colleges.
The colleges that received the most were Fairmont at $3 million and Shepherd at $2.7 million.
West Virginia University and Marshall each received an additional $1 million.
Glenville State got $247,000.
“Even in the redistribution of allocations last year, different colleges got different amounts of money,” Tucker said. “That additional money will help soften this blow for some, but not every institution got money.”
Tucker said she is glad the governor and his staff are signaling an early warning for next year’s budget proposals.
But she said the current-year cuts are at an awkward time to try to adjust.
“Because this is a midyear cut they’re not going to be able to cut tuition and fees mid year and not going to be able to cut programs that students are enrolled in,” she said.
Tucker said the college system first became aware of the possibility of cuts prior to budget meetings this fall. She sent an email to individual colleges, suggesting that they should start to prepare.
The Higher Education Policy Commission would be responsible for suggesting its own budget, while the individual universities and colleges would be responsible for their own. So it’s still early to know how each might react to proposed cuts.
In past years, colleges have responded by increasing tuition for students.
“We’re concerned about students and effect budget cuts have on students, Tucker said.
And in other rounds of cuts, colleges have deferred maintenance and left positions unfilled. Some have even reduced operating hours.
“They have cut the fat and have spent several years cutting the fat,” Tucker said. “So now they’re going to have to see where else they can take those cuts.”