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MU forum focuses on possible budget cuts

Nov. 06, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- The importance of Marshall University as an economic engine in Huntington and a means to diversify the state economy -- and how to maintain that role amidst state budget cuts -- were the the basis of a public forum Tuesday at Marshall's John Deaver Drinko Library.

State legislators Kevin Craig, Kelli Sobonya, Carol Miller and Jim Morgan of Cabell County and Don Perdue of Wayne County were on hand to share their thoughts. Mayor Steve Williams spoke as well at the forum, which was moderated by Beth Vorhees, news director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

This fiscal year, higher education institutions in West Virginia underwent a 7.5 percent cut to their state budget appropriations and have been asked to submit budgets reflecting cuts of another 7.5 percent or up to 8.3 percent for next year, Marshall University President Stephen Kopp said.

Craig said that as of this fiscal year, the state is running 4 percent behind on tax collection, much of which could be contributed to the struggling coal industry. There also is a decline in revenue from the reduction of the corporate income tax and the elimination of the food sales tax, Morgan said.

Meanwhile lottery funding, which pays for the PROMISE Scholarship, is declining.

It's a difficult discussion when the state has to fund several needs from K-12 and higher education, to health care, law enforcement, highways, bridges and many others, the legislators said.

K-12 education makes up about 52 percent of the state's $4.2 billion general revenue budget, and higher education is somewhere between 11 and 12 percent, Craig said.

"I think it's important to make surgical cuts. We have to be careful with what we do cut," Miller said. "We have a terrible drug addiction problem in our state. You are trying to train students to work and get good jobs but they have to be clean when they get there."

One attendee asked about the state's Rainy Day Fund -- when is it put to use and who gets some. The fund, which has nearly a billion dollars, has not been touched so as to ensure the state a good credit rating.

"I think it's raining. If you think this year is tough, next year is going to be tougher," Craig said. "The administration in this country is not pro energy right now, and that has a direct impact on this state. ... Everyone thinks it's a good idea to have a Rainy Day Fund. The question is how much do you have to have in it?"

Diversifying the economy so it's not so dependent on one industry is key, Williams said.

While admitting he has a vested interest in Marshall as "the heartbeat of the economy in Huntington," Williams said that higher education is crucial to providing the well educated workforce needed to create and fill jobs in the economy of the future. He urged the legislature not to cut budgets in the areas that "provide the lantern to dig ourselves out of this hole we've gotten ourselves into."

He also said he was interested in alternatives to increase state revenue to help Marshall get the funding it needs.

Sobonya is pushing to remove barriers that keep companies and jobs out of the state, such as an inventory tax on businesses. "It's all about what jobs can we bring to West Virginia," she said.

Kopp said he has suggested a commodity tax, such as a tax on soft drinks, alcohol, beer or cigarettes to legislators.

"It was not well received because, 'We're not going to raise taxes,' is what I was told," Kopp said.

Also discussed at the meeting was filling some "sales tax loopholes," such as placing a tax on services and online purchases including internet downloads of books, videos and music, none of which are taxed in West Virginia, Kopp said.

"I think there are solutions here. We just need to make them happen," he said.

All the legislators present affirmed the importance of higher education in the grand scheme of helping the state.

"We're going to need to make sure our students can earn those degrees to power our economy in the future," Sobonya said.

But there were differences of opinion on whether new taxes were the best solution or eliminating government waste.

"I would tell you that what you want, you're probably going to have to pay for in West Virginia," Morgan said. Perdue agreed, and said it's been 20 years since the last general tax increase in West Virginia, other than on tobacco.

Sobonya said she'd first rather make sure that there's no government waste.

"Before you dig into the pockets of West Virginians," be sure every dime is spent effectively, she said.

Students who attended the meeting asked about how the cuts might affect the medical school and the social work program, which so desperately needed in these times of increasing drug addiction. Another student made suggestions about shifting taxes from in store purchases to online. One faculty member said he's confused by the unwillingness to pay taxes for necessary services.

The town hall style meeting was part of a series of forums designed to get input from faculty, students and members of the community on the anticipated second round of budget cuts. The final meeting will be Thursday, Nov. 7, at the Marshall University South Charleston Campus Library.

Morgan urged input from students and residents. There's not as much input heard by legislators in Charleston as there is at school board and council meetings, he said.

Perdue said he would have liked to see more students at the meeting.

"I want them in the room. I want them in every room and to get excited about what's happening to them," he said.

Craig said Marshall's leadership team has been great about lobbying in favor of higher education funding. It even led to money being put back in the budget for the medical school this past year, Craig said. But it's also great to hear from employees, students and community members.

"This is the kind of dialogue we need," Craig said. "We can't do this in a vacuum."

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