WV Senate Ed passes bills to cut $79M, allow vouchers, tax credits

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail

West Virginia’s Senate Education Committee on Thursday night passed a bill that would cut state funding to public education next fiscal year by about $79 million but newly authorize county school boards to raise regular levy property tax rates if they want no funding loss.

Amy Willard, executive director of the state Office of School Finance, provided numbers on what each county public school system would lose if Senate Bill 609 passed and the county school board didn’t raise tax rates at all: Kanawha would lose about $9.3 million, Monongalia would lose $5 million, Putnam would lose $2.7 million, Logan would lose $1.3 million, Wayne would lose $1.1 million and Boone would lose $900,000.

She said that if school boards raise their regular levy tax rates to the new maximum allowed under the bill, they would effectively have no funding change next fiscal year.

The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, and fellow Republicans Mike Azinger, R-Wood, Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, and Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson.

Hank Hager, counsel for the committee, told senators that county school boards would be allowed to change their levy rates next month.

Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, pressed Hager repeatedly Thursday to explain what the bill would do. Hager explained that it “incentivized” school boards to raise their levy rates, and Plymale then asked Willard to explain the financial impact.

Willard said it would “pretty much, incentivize, force” the boards to raise the tax rates if they wanted to remain financially “stable.”

She said that if boards did raise their tax rates to the maximum allowed under the bill, a person with a home appraised at $75,000 would pay $31.95 extra on their annual tax bill for that home, while someone would pay $42.60 extra on a $100,000 home.

“I applaud the people that thought of this. I can’t vote for it, but I can applaud it,” Plymale told his fellow committee members Thursday.

Willard said the originally introduced version of SB 609 would’ve cut total state basic aid funding to county public school systems by about $53 million next fiscal year.

That line was removed in an amended version of the bill revealed at Thursday night’s committee meeting. The amended version cut the $79 million but added the ability to raise regular levy property tax rates.

Willard said school boards currently can’t raise regular levy property tax rates; they can ask voters to pass excess property tax levies, and even those excess levy rates are legally capped.

“That’s a cowardly way of the Legislature saying we didn’t raise $79 million in taxes,” Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said Friday.

Unger wasn’t there for Thursday night’s vote. The committee passed the bill with Sens. Azinger, Karnes, Mann, Maynard, Swope and Trump voting yes and Beach and Plymale voting no.

Later Thursday, after 8 p.m., the committee passed Senate Bill 273, which would give people nonrefundable income tax credits for educational expenses related to students under 21.

The tax credits also would be available to public and private school classroom teachers for the expenses they pay related to professional development and also possibly — the bill is unclear on this point — for the expenses they pay for “supplementary education materials.”

The tax credits would be allowed to be equal to the expenses incurred per eligible dependent child, not to exceed $500 per child. Teachers would be able to claim tax credits equal to expenses up to $1,000.

Nonrefundable tax credits don’t benefit individuals who owe no state income taxes.

In what SB 273 dubs “Education Savings Accounts” — a voucher-type “school choice” program seen in some other states — the legislation also would allow parents with income low enough to claim the federal earned income tax credit to use public money to provide their children homeschooling or send their children to private schools, including religious schools.

Only 1,000 students could access Education Savings Accounts at any one time. Priority for receiving an account would be based on order of applications received.

That bill, SB 273 — sponsored by Sens. Azinger, Cline, Ferns and Rucker — wasn’t listed on the committee’s agenda Thursday. It was taken up as a report from the committee’s subcommittee on school choice.

Only Sens. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, and Mike Romano, D-Harrison, were heard voting no in the voice vote to pass SB 273. Romano rushed into the committee room, panting, just in time to vote no.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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