Kessler will propose tobacco hike to cover community college tuition

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Kessler will propose tobacco hike to cover community college tuition
By Samuel Speciale, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Sen. Jeff Kessler wants to make community and technical college in West Virginia free for qualifying students, a promise he said can be funded by raising the state’s tobacco tax.

On Monday, the Marshall County Democrat told the Gazette-Mail he will introduce tobacco tax legislation in January that could raise more than $100 million in additional revenue each year. That money will then be used for substance abuse programs and workforce development initiatives, including community and technical college financial aid akin to what is offered through the state’s Promise Scholarship.

“What I’ve seen over the past few budget cycles is that we keep cutting funds to higher education,” Kessler said, adding that slashing the state’s budget, especially education appropriations, to favor tax breaks is “counterproductive” and prohibits economic growth.

“We’re trying to cut our way to prosperity,” he added. “And that’s just not happening.”

Funding for higher education in West Virginia has been reduced three times over the last three years. That has cut state spending on colleges and universities to its lowest level in almost a decade. Just this year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin approved more than $7 million in cuts to the state’s two-year and four-year colleges.

Amidst a decade of cuts, the average in-state tuition has increased nearly 70 percent, or nearly $2,400 since 2004, according to Higher Education Policy Commission data. Enrollment also has decreased.

“That makes it more cost prohibitive for our kids to go to college,” said Kessler, the state Senate Minority Leader. He also is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor.

Kessler’s plan is not new. If molded after his past attempts to raise the tobacco tax, it could increase West Virginia’s comparatively low tax of 55 cents per pack to $1.55 within three years.

The state’s current tax is 44th among states. At $1.55, it would be the 11th highest in the country.

Of surrounding states, only Virginia has a lower tobacco tax at 30 cents per pack. Kentucky has a 60-cent tax, while Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland charge $1.25, $1.60 and $2, respectively.

West Virginia hasn’t increased its tobacco tax since 2003 when it was only 38 cents per pack.

When asked if he was proposing the tax hike as a legislator or as a gubernatorial candidate, Kessler said “both.”

“That’s going to be a drum we’ll be beating throughout the campaign,” he added.

Kessler’s campaign website says he is proposing a $10 million scholarship program for community college students.

“For $1,000, you can get a kid certified in a year,” he said, adding that something as simple as a welding certificate can give a student marketable skills and better access to high-paying jobs.

“It’s something we need to do immediately.”

On a national scale, tuition-free college has recently become a political platform for Democrats, most notably President Barack Obama, who earlier this year proposed the American College Promise plan to provide two years of community college for free.

Once Obama introduced his plan, the White House said it could benefit as many as nine million students a year. Democratic candidates for president, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also proposed similar plans.

It is estimated that 35 percent of jobs in America will require a degree of some kind by 2020. That number could be even higher in West Virginia.

According to a group of Georgetown University researchers, the state’s universities need to graduate 20,000 more students by 2018 to sustain its economy. In a 2013 study, the group also speculated that 50 percent of West Virginia jobs will require an associate degree or higher by the end of the decade.

Only 26 percent of West Virginia’s working-age adults have at least a two-year degree, and only about 40 percent of the state’s 18- to 24-year-olds are currently enrolled in college. At 17.3 percent, West Virginia also has the lowest bachelor’s degree attainment rate in the country, nearly 11 percentage points below the national average.