West Virginia Senate Passes Free Community College Bill

Photo by Will Price, W.Va. Legislative Services West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, greets visitors to the Senate chamber on Wednesday.

CHARLESTON — A day after several amendments from Democratic lawmakers failed along party-line votes, the West Virginia Senate passed a community and technical college bill with unanimous support on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 1 creates a last-dollar-in program to help high school graduates and adults fund their community and technical college education once grants and other forms of financial aid are exhausted.

The state Department of Commerce is tasked with determining which specific fields require jobs, which will determine what two-year degrees the state will help fund.

“There’s very few days when you get excited and know what you’ve done … will change the face and the trajectory of the economy in West Virginia and the lives of the people this bill is intended to help,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.

The bill also creates programs to help transition high school students into community and technical colleges. Participants would need to submit to periodic drug tests and perform acts of community service. They would also need to remain in the state for two years or be forced to repay the grant.

The bill passed 34-0, with senators from both parties expressing their support.

“The goal of this bill is expanding opportunities and getting West Virginians into jobs,” Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said. “Not just any jobs, but high-paying jobs so they can provide for their families and improve their lives.”

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, rose to support the bill. It was his amendment on Tuesday to expand the bill to cover two-year associate degrees at four-year colleges and universities that caused a heated debate and resulted in a 14-20 party-line vote against the amendment.

“I truly believe the education system we have is the foundation of this country,” Prezioso said. “It not only helps our state, it helps families, it attracts businesses, and I applaud the efforts of this body by taking the initiative and putting this bill forth.”

After the floor session, business and industry leaders joined Carmichael and senators from both parties in front of the Senate Chamber. Carmichael, the lead sponsor of SB 1, was enthusiastic about the bill passage’s and its bipartisan support.

“I want to say to the people of West Virginia … this is the way legislation is done,” Carmichael said.

Workforce training is part of the legislative agendas for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the West Virginia Manufacturers’ Association. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, West Virginia had the lowest workforce participation rate in the country with 53.9 percent as of Jan. 18.

“In West Virginia, we’re blessed to have an economy that’s improving, but it needs to improve more,” said Steve Roberts, president of the state chamber. “Thanks to today’s bipartisan vote in the West Virginia Senate, a major step has been taken to move our economy forward.”

“On a daily basis we hear from our members the struggles they have not only in filling current jobs, but when they’re thinking about expanding and where they’re going to find a qualified workforce that they need to make West Virginia better,” said Rebecca McPhail, president of the state manufacturers’ association. “We’re elated to have an opportunity to see results from this kind of progressive thinking in West Virginia.”

Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the state Community and Technical College System, said the biggest problem the schools have isn’t the job training programs, but filling seats in classrooms.

“It really is a big change for the state of West Virginia,” Tucker said. “This will allow our students to know they can go to college, that it’s affordable, and that they can get a job at the end of the tunnel.”

The bill now crosses over to the House of Delegates, where its fate is uncertain. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, has expressed support in a workforce training program, but hasn’t said specifically he supports Carmichael’s bill. A similar bill was never taken up by the House last year, but Carmichael is optimistic in its chances.

“The House is fully informed on what we’re doing and very supportive,” Carmichael said. “Until someone casts a vote yea or nay on this, we’ll never know. But we’re very confident that anyone who is interested in the prosperity of West Virginia and the betterment of citizens will not only vote yes, but vote yes two, three, or four times.”

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