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PROMISE Delayed Amid W.Va. Budget Crisis

By Staff | May 18, 2016

WHEELING – The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission has delayed releasing award packets for the state’s PROMISE Scholarship because state legislators have not yet approved a budget for the coming fiscal year.

The delay has concerned students, parents and educators across the state, although officials say they are confident the state scholarship will be funded for this fall.

Jessica Tice, a spokeswoman with the Higher Education Policy Commission, said all students who qualified for the scholarship received letters of confirmation, but high school counselors were sent an email in early May letting them know award packets would be delayed.

“We just can’t promise funding the Legislature has not yet appropriated,” she said.

Last year the state Legislature budgeted $47.5 million for the PROMISE Scholarship alone, but Tice said the Higher Education Policy Commission also supports the Higher Education Grant Program, as well as the Engineering, Science and Technology Scholarship.

“We have a number of state-funded financial aid programs we are working to preserve,” she said.

Tice said while officials are concerned, they remain confident the PROMISE Scholarship and other state financial aid will be funded.

“We are working closely with the governor and legislative leaders to protect PROMISE and other programs,” she said. “We’re really optimistic about PROMISE funding.”

In addition to PROMISE Scholarship students, school districts, Medicaid providers and others in West Virginia slated to receive state dollars are being sent letters telling them this money could be slow in coming – or might not come at all – as lawmakers grapple with the budget.

Ohio County Schools Superintendent Dianna Vargo said she wasn’t aware of the district receiving any letters from the state, but noted they would have gone to the school district’s business manager, Steven Bieniek, who was away at a conference in Charleston Thursday.

She said 94 graduating students at Wheeling Park High School were awarded PROMISE Scholarships this week.

“For now, we’re just waiting to hear the status of the PROMISE scholarship,” Vargo said.

Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, said the Legislature has been late in passing a budget before, and state agencies didn’t send out such letters.

She believes the mailings are a political attempt to scare recipients who rely on state dollars and embarrass a Republican-led House and Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, denies this, and said the public “absolutely” needs to know of the state’s cash flow problems.

The lawmakers agree concerns about West Virginia are warranted, though they don’t necessarily agree on the amount of shortfall. Storch said the deficit is quickly approaching $500 million if changes aren’t soon made, while Kessler sets it at about $270 million.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Thursday called for a special session of the Legislature focusing on the budget to begin at noon Monday in Charleston. Bills to increase state taxes on cigarettes, cell phones and sales are set to be discussed.

Those receiving letters “definitely should be concerned because we do have a large budget issue,” Storch said.

“Obviously people – like the PROMISE Scholarship students – are trying to make plans for the money, and this causes uncertainty and concern. But passing the budget has gone on later than this before. Why now? We have state agencies sending out these letters, and it’s freaking people out,” she said.

In 2009, when Democrats controlled both the Legislature and the governor’s office, the fiscal year 2010 budget was not passed until June, according to Storch. But Kessler said this was because the state was awaiting federal stimulus dollars, not because of a budget deficit.

Also at issue is that West Virginia already faces a $100 million shortfall for the current fiscal year before the 2017 fiscal year even begins, according to Kessler.

“We’re seven weeks out from the end of the fiscal year, and there is not enough revenue incoming,” Kessler said. “We have to raise taxes. The only other option is to cut.”

While funding to universities and colleges in West Virginia could be cut as much as 10 percent, it’s most likely this reduction would be passed on to college students in the form of tuition increases, he said.

And Kessler predicts public education could see an 8 percent cut.

“Those are the kinds of cuts you’ll have to implement to reach the $270 million mark,” Kessler said. “It’s never been like this in my tenure. We adjourned the session in March, and 60 days later, there’s still not a budget. … The inability of the Legislature to balance the budget is the result of the failure by leadership to identify cuts that need to be made. If you don’t raise taxes, and you don’t want to make cuts, that leaves us with a $270 million hole.”