The West Virginia Senate’s top legislative priority drew lengthy debate Tuesday over proposed amendments to a bill that would create a grant program to pay the remaining tuition balance for community and technical college students.
The first proposed amendment to Senate Bill 1 would have allowed students to use the grant towards tuition for an already existing associate’s degree program at any of the state’s four-year institutions.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso proposed the change after leaders of four-year institutions expressed concerns to senators over declining enrollment and argued that the bill gives favor to community colleges.
Prezioso warned of “unintended consequences” that may hurt the state’s four-year institutions.
“We've got to make every avenue available for every student. When we look at our declining enrollments in our public education sector and in the the higher education sector, there's a target population out there that we're trying to reach -- and it's not a large target population,” Prezioso said. “We have to afford the students, that are left now in our school system, the opportunity to obtain whatever career path that they may want.”
With Democrats rising in support and Republicans arguing that the amendment would broaden the number of applications and drive up costs to the state, Senate President Mitch Carmichael eventually left his spot at the podium to address the proposed amendments.
“This is a targeted program that addresses a demographic that's going to lift a certain socio-economic segment to a higher level -- to a better place in their life,” Carmichael said.
But Carmichael also pointed to opposition in the House in an unexpected context. As the Senate was in session debating amendments to the community college grant program, Delegate Jim Butler announced he would challenge Carmichael in 2020.
“I'll probably making a mistake saying this, but I'm going to -- it's all politics, right? Somebody just filed to run against me in the Fourth Senatorial District because they [said we] need a real conservative in the district -- not someone who's creating an entitlement program for free college and tuition. That's what you're dealing with,” Carmichael said. “So to the degree that we continue to escalate the cost of this program -- as we do every good idea that comes through here -- there are opportunities for further expansion later as we move through the process. But if we're going to, you know, we can all destroy a great idea.”
The amendment failed on a 14-20 party line vote.
Another amendment offered by Sen. Bob Plymale and other Democrats would have encouraged, but not required, community and technical colleges to enter into collaborative agreements with federally registered apprenticeship programs.
“We're all talking about West Virginia citizens here and we owe it to the West Virginia citizens to give them every opportunity to have a job and a career pathway,” Plymale said. “We also talk about industries and right now when we talk about industries and in the construction area -- particularly with the road building -- I mean we were in the Transportation [and Infrastructure Committee] recently talking about that, but the needs for for people with trades and abilities and skills.”
After pushback from Republicans, that amendment was rejected on a 15-19 vote, with Sen. Bill Hamilton being the only Republican to break with the majority party.
Senate Bill 1 now moves on to a full vote in the chamber on Wednesday.
The bill includes some eligibility requirements. In order for students to receive the tuition grant, they must successfully pass a drug test prior to each semester of enrollment and remain in West Virginia for two years following the completion of a program.
Last session’s version of the “last dollar in” bill passed the upper chamber unanimously but was not taken up by the House. This year, new House Speaker Roger Hanshaw has championed the cause of workforce development, but has questioned whether focusing on community college is the correct path towards that goal.