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Remarks by West Virginia University President Gordon Gee at a recent Faculty Senate meeting seem to have unintentionally pushed some people’s buttons. Gee is said to have given a nod to eventual elimination of the state income tax, long a favorite policy idea of the economic development community in West Virginia.

WVU’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, framed a Feb. 11 story by Matt Serra this way: “Gee defends income tax cut amid backlash: Decision could result in slashed WVU funding, end of PROMISE scholarship.”

While it is true that eliminating the state income tax all at once, with no other revenue streams to take its place, would require significant cuts to the state’s budget, no one knows just where any cuts would be made. So speculation seems a little premature, even sensational.

Gee’s office quickly sent out a clarification, indicating that the WVU president realizes there are many considerations. WVU spokeswoman April Kaull gave a more detailed explanation in the same story in the Daily Athenaeum:

“Gee acknowledges there is support among West Virginia legislators regarding this issue but that there are many factors to consider and that it is not something that can be implemented immediately or without careful thought and planning.”

Kaull noted that Gee had seen the benefits of a state having no income tax during his tenure as Vanderbilt University’s president.

“Gee adds having lived in Tennessee, where there is no income tax, it was a benefit to economic growth and development,” Kaull wrote. “He agrees that long term, it could be successful; but not without substituting other potential taxes or other sources of revenue and looking at the overall tax structure.”

Certainly, that is a responsible position for several reasons. For starters, Gee shows that he is well aware of the need for other revenue to replace or reduce the income tax, which currently generates $2.1 billion per year for the state.

Further, Gee demonstrates that he is at least open to an intelligent policy discussion on a popular topic at this year’s legislative session. In the same story in the Daily Athenaeum, Gee noted that he supports measures that “help build a stronger West Virginia and educational system.”

That last quote is crucial. Many people never make the connection between a healthy and growing state economy and its potential for increased outlays to important educational institutions. Gee does.

The only way West Virginia schools, colleges and universities will ever have the funding they deserve is if West Virginia starts to reinvent its economy. With more businesses, large and small, developing across the Mountain State, the government would bring in more revenue from a variety of taxes that come with greater economic growth.

I have often thought that, if more educators became involved at the local level in economic development of their part of the state, two incredibly important dynamics would take place.

First, local economic development authorities and chambers of commerce would benefit from the brain power of those local educators.

But second, educators would learn the mechanics of economic development, what goes into it and how vital it is for state and county investments in the community.

Who really believes that Gee, who has devoted his life to education, wants to see huge reductions in his university’s budget? However, if West Virginia could find an intelligent way to phase out the state income tax to help our economic development opportunities, that would make great sense.

A healthy and growing state economy is education’s best friend.

Stephen N. Reed is a former deputy secretary of state.

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