Senators debate whether to broaden community college bill

CHARLESTON — Senators debated at length whether Senate Bill 1, meant to provide a financial path to community college, should be expanded.

Democrats proposed an amendment that would also allow grants for four-year colleges that have existing associates degree programs. They said that would broaden options for students seeking technical skills.

Republicans worried that would significantly increase the cost of the bill. They also expressed concern that any increased cost would doom the bill once it reaches the House of Delegates.

In the end, the amendment was rejected 14-20. It would be on a passage vote, 3rd reading, on Wednesday before going to the House of Delegates.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who has been a prime supporter of the bill, came down from the podium for a relatively rare floor speech.

Carmichael made reference to a 2020 primary election challenge – announced at noon Tuesday – by Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason.

“The concern as it relates to the House of Delegates – I’m just going to share with you,” Carmichael began, “I’m probably making a mistake by saying this but I’m going to say it.

“Somebody just filed to run against me in the 4th Senatorial District because they want a ‘real conservative’ in the district, not ‘someone who’s bringing an entitlement program of free college tuition.’ That’s what you’re dealing with here.”

Carmichael, R-Jackson, then went on to say the bill needs to be palatable to the House of Delegates.

“We can all destroy a great idea by adding to it. Too much of a good thing eventually collapses under its own weight.”

The bill’s estimated cost is $7.5 million.

No one knew how much changing it might change the cost. That would depend on how many students take advantage of the program.

“I resent the idea that we’re going to offend the House by sending over a fiscal note that might be double at best,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. “I didn’t hear one person say they were against the amendment we offered.”

Prezioso added, “I would encourage you to think down deep who you are trying to help.”

The “last dollar in” bill passed the Senate with broad support last year, but went nowhere in the House of Delegates.

The bill would provide the remaining grant money for students in associates degree or certificate programs after they have exhausted their other financial aid possibilities.

Advocates, including both Republicans and Democrats, see the bill as a way to bolster West Virginia’s workforce by encouraging the pursuit of technical skills.

But some four-year colleges, most prominently Fairmont State, have argued the current construction of the bill would put them at a disadvantage. Potential students, they contend, would have a financial incentive to choose community college instead of a regional college.

“We don’t want to create an atmosphere of competition where we’re pitting the four-year institutions against the two-year institutions. Because there’s a limited number of students out there,” Prezioso said. “We’re putting the Legislature in a position to pick winners and losers.”

Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said the Legislature should focus on passing the bill and work later to expand it once its effects are better known.

“This is a beginning, and I think it is, as you said, a really good beginning,” Rucker said.

Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was among those concerned that the financial effects of expanding the bill are unknown. He also argued the Senate should consider what’s acceptable in the House of Delegates.

“There is opposition over in the House right now that thinks this is an entitlement,” Blair said. “We cannot spend every dollar we see. We have to live within our means.”

Senator Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, said senators were being short-sighted by not expanding the bill.

“Look, I haven’t heard anybody say this isn’t a good idea. What we’re arguing about is the cost. Shame on us. Let’s not be penny-wise and dollar-stupid here. Let’s not put a dollar on keeping some child from going to school.

“We don’t have enough higher educated people in the state. This is an opportunity. I hope this costs $50 million. Because the more it costs, the more it means people are taking advantage of it.”

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