The Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education has seemingly succeeded in delaying, for another year, the state from adopting a four-year college funding formula.
And proposed state higher education oversight decreases that were the source of much of the controversy in Blue Ribbon meetings may be subject to another year of study.
The West Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a budget bill (House Bill 2020) Saturday that includes more for four-year colleges next academic year than the $10 million the Blue Ribbon panel recommended. These base state appropriation increases are in addition to the added money for pay raises for college employees.
Blue Ribbon members said the $10 million recommendation was based not on a long-term funding formula for the future, but on better equalizing the amount of state funding provided per in-state student across West Virginia.
Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed budget included the employee raise money but didn’t contain any of the Blue Ribbon panel’s funding recommendation, despite Justice being the one who created the group.
The Senate’s proposed budget, which is scheduled for amendments and a final vote Monday, doesn’t include any of this extra funding. The House and Senate will have to agree on a single version to send to Justice for his consideration.
Neither chamber’s budget bases four-year college funding on the proposed formula the Legislature ordered the state Higher Education Policy Commission to develop.
West Virginia University opposed the HEPC staff’s proposed formulas. The HEPC submitted several proposals, instead of a single one as lawmakers had mandated.
After a “hold-harmless” period of years passed, WVU could’ve lost money, especially under the HEPC staff’s first public proposal.
WVU President Gordon Gee has said his successful behind-the-scenes work to get Justice to create the Blue Ribbon panel wasn’t motivated by his opposition to the HEPC’s funding formula work.
After the HEPC’s first formula proposal, Justice abruptly formed the panel in July, made Gee the leader of its meetings, and gave it a Dec. 10 deadline for a report. A final report hasn’t been published, the Blue Ribbon panel hasn’t announced any meetings since Jan. 4, and it has requested roughly another year to work on its own proposal for a funding formula.
House funding alterations
The House’s budget would give West Virginia State University $1.2 million, up from the $900,000 increase the Blue Ribbon panel recommended.
The bill would give Glenville State College an extra $250,000, plus a further $500,000 if general revenue fund surplus money is available at the end of this fiscal year. That’s up from the $40,000 increase the Blue Ribbon panel recommended.
It would give Shepherd University an extra $2.7 million, plus a further half-million dollars if those surplus funds are available at the end of this fiscal year. That’s up from the $2.5 million increase the Blue Ribbon panel recommended.
It would also give West Virginia University and Marshall University an extra $1 million each and Potomac State College of WVU another $500,000, despite the Blue Ribbon group recommending nothing more for those three.
The only Blue Ribbon panel recommendation the House budget would decrease is for Fairmont State University, which would get $3 million more instead of the recommended $3.4 million.
House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said one of the reasons delegates passed these increases was to offset legislation (House Bill 3139) that requires state agencies to come up with money to cover Public Employees Insurance Agency health insurance costs for employees who are paid through federal funds or special revenue, like tuition.
He said he doubts the cost to colleges for this will be as high as the $16 million figure Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, has expressed concern over.
Householder also said that, whatever the cost is, it’ll be a one-time expense and wouldn’t be due until the end of next fiscal year or, if colleges get “hardship waivers,” Dec. 31, 2020.
“We’ll be here for next session,” he said. “If there is any need, we’ll be able to run supplementals to make up any differences.”
He said “higher ed got rewarded very well.”
A bill without consensus
A week from the end of this year’s regular legislative session, this is all there is to show for the Blue Ribbon panel’s work.
Much of its discussion was focused not on funding, but on replacing or changing the HEPC, the state agency overseeing four-year colleges, into primarily a service agency with less oversight.
The Senate has passed legislation (Senate Bill 673) eliminating the statewide master plan for public higher education.
But the bill, which the House has yet to take up, wasn’t a Blue Ribbon recommendation.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said the bill was her effort to “pass what everyone could agree on.” She said she put SB 673 on her committee agenda after holding her own meeting about two weeks ago.
Attendees said the meeting included representatives from multiple colleges, including some college presidents who are on the Blue Ribbon panel. They said it also included representatives of community colleges, whom Justice previously declined to include on the Blue Ribbon panel despite several panel members requesting that they be included.
Rucker said she had the meeting perhaps five days after receiving a proposed bill from the Blue Ribbon panel, though she couldn’t recall who provided it to her. The Blue Ribbon panel never approved a final bill.
“I was given what is essentially an omnibus bill that was over 100 pages long with dramatic changes to HEPC,” Rucker said. “It was informed to me that [community and technical colleges] were not really consulted, so that bothered me. And so we sent the recommended bill that was sent to me to some of these CTCs and there was an immediate reaction that was very negative and full of concerns.”
She said that “knowing that I was either going to have to handle those concerns previous to putting in a bill or after, I decided to try to have a stakeholder meeting where we could all talk together and include the authors of that bill ... so they could explain what they were trying to do and explain their justifications for doing it. And, truly, it was just very clear at that stakeholder meeting that there was a lot of disagreement, so I felt like it wasn’t providential to pass that bill or try to get such a huge bill into my committee.”
Rucker said Senate Education will likely consider Tuesday passing a study resolution to “see how we can make HEPC more efficient and become what we want it to be, and also make it clear that we’re looking for a funding formula. It’s already been a couple years since we passed a bill asking that there be a funding formula.”
On Jan. 31, Gee, the WVU president, emailed the Blue Ribbon panel members a draft bill.
“If there are substantive issues or anything is incorrect, we will be happy to work through those, although we think this legislation represents the discussions that have taken place to date among the presidents and the BRC,” Gee wrote. “We apologize for the delay but we were seeking to develop a streamlined piece of legislation. The Governor’s Office is reviewing this legislation. We look forward to any comments from you.”
WVU Communications Senior Executive Director John Bolt said that, also around Jan. 31, the bill was shared with lawmakers, too.
“It wasn’t sent as, ‘This is our recommendation,’” Bolt said. “It was sent as ‘Here’s where we are, what do you think?’”
Fairmont State President Mirta Martin, another member of the Blue Ribbon panel, said she was at Rucker’s meeting, and Martin said House Education Committee Chairman Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, was also there.
Martin said the smaller four-year schools never went line-by-line through the Jan. 31 draft bill, but a major concern in it for them was that it would replace the HEPC with something called the Office of Postsecondary Education and replace the HEPC chancellor with a director for the new office.
She said there should be a chancellor for the HEPC and one for the Community and Technical College System, just like there currently is, so four-year schools wouldn’t seem secondary.
Martin said she wants to consider changes “in a proper manner, in a methodical way, not have it blown up and then with a perception of we’ll fix it as we go along.”
“No, it’s too important,” she said. “The future of this state depends on whether or not its youth have access to an education and this bill has the potential of changing the course of higher education in this state. So I’m very grateful to the leadership ... that it took a step back and listened to the experts and said there’s too much here, let’s go ahead and take it piecemeal.”
Eric Lewis, president of the Shepherd Board of Governors and a Blue Ribbon panel member, said he agreed with the vast majority of the Jan. 31 draft bill and was disappointed lawmakers didn’t pursue it during this year’s session.
“But I understand,” he said. “I mean, it’s a major overhaul.”
Lewis said he’s glad the Senate may study the issue.
He said, “Everyone had an opportunity to weigh in on the bill that was sent to the full Blue Ribbon Commission. There wasn’t a meeting where everyone came back together, there was no time.”