WVU talks legislative priorities for 2019 session

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University’s Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives, sat down with The Dominion Post to look at WVU’s legislative priorities for the 2019 session, which begins Jan. 9.

At the top of the list, he said, is the budget bill and how it will affect WVU. Higher education across the state saw a series of budget cuts as the governor and Legislature wrestled with revenue downturns.

Thankfully, he said, in 2018 WVU was spared cuts and received a little extra money to help with state employee pay raises approved by the Legislature at the end of the session.

And this year, there have been steady monthly surpluses, totaling $141 million at the end of November.

“We’re hopeful that we have that stability,” he said. “It’d be nice for some of those reductions to be reinstated.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education, he said, has proposed to put $10 million in base funding to the regional institutions, which could help WVU.

“We think we’re a great investment, but we know we’re one of a number of priorities: teacher pay, PEIA economic development. We think we should be right up there. We’re just hoping to have a conversation and the state invest in its priorities.”

WVU has requested its budget remain at the same level as this year, but no one will know what Gov. Jim Justice will propose until his State of the State Address on Jan. 9. Alsop, as a former chief of staff for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Revenue secretary for Gov. Joe Manchin, understands what goes on in the governor’s office during this time leading up to the session.

“He’s told us that he considers education to be a priority,” Alsop said. “I think that includes higher education. We’ve heard from some legislative leaders that if there are additional resources, higher ed’s one of the places they’d like to see investment.”

But it’s too early to tell, he said. WVU is awaiting December numbers and Department of Revenue estimates for the coming year.

WVU is also looking at other legislation, he said.

Current law sets criminal penalties for a student affiliated with a recognized fraternity who engages in inappropriate hazing, Alsop said. But the law doesn’t apply to the five fraternities that dissociated and formed an Independent Fraternity Council. So they’ve worked with local officials and talked with the local delegation to see if they can close that gap.

A topic with no specific bill behind it yet is Morgantown’s bar scene and the troubles that arise for students.

“We’ve been talking to some of our local officials and local delegation and the ABCA as to whether they need additional resources or if there’s additional authority at the local level that can be gotten. … I don’t know if there’s any hard solutions.”

But they’ll keep talking and hoping to move forward, he said.

And, of course, WVU is watching the work of the PEIA Task Force, on which Alsop sits. Some of the force’s recommendations will require money. There’s been discussion of the 80-20 state-employee premium match that limits the state’s flexibility on putting money into the program.

There’s no bill on the table yet, he said, but the problem is on the minds of WVU employees, who are looking for improvement.

On a smaller scale, the University Police is the only force in the state, Alsop said that’s required to hire state residents. They recently lost a recruit who lived in Mount Morris, Pa.

Other border town colleges may face the same issue, he said, so there’s been talk about getting some flexibility on that.

WVU understands it’s important to hire West Virginians. But at the same time, “We’re a regional economy and so that’s just sort of an artificial barrier.”

Alsop also mentioned a couple troubling bills WVU will keep an eye on.

One is the expected resurrection of HB 4298, the Campus Self Defense Act, which would forbid a board regulating the carrying of a concealed weapon on campus by someone licensed to carry.

WVU recognizes West Virginians strongly support the 2nd Amendment, he said, and that in the case of a campus shooting, some would prefer to be able to defend themselves.

But WVU opposes the bill.

“We’re a big believer in local government, local authority, local control. We think the Board of Governors is in the best position to determine that.”

It’s the job of University Police to respond to such incidents, he said, and they have the expertise to handle them. “We want to keep our campus safe and we think the Board of Governors having the authority to dictate that, as it is under current law, is the best way to go.”

Another is a funding formula recommended last session by Higher Education Policy Commission staff that would have cost university about $13.5 million, as it distributed a limited pool of funds to other institutions.

“We don’t begrudge any other institution getting additional dollars. But given the amount of cuts we’ve taken and what we think we do for the state, we think it’s a really bad ideal to cut us and give that money to another institution. We ought to be thinking about investment strategies.”

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