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West Virginia Finance Battle Enters Critical Phase

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"We're on the edgeof yet anotherpolitical brouhaha.I just hope thevoters will lookbeyond it ... ."--State Representative Lyle Sattes The struggle to reform West Virginia's widely criticized school-finance system has entered a new and critical phase, one which may lead to renewed confrontation between the state's political and judicial leaders, according to officials there.

The state's largest teachers' union has asked the state supreme court to order the legislature back into special session so that it can reverse recent cuts in education funding.

A lower-court judge, meanwhile, has threatened to redistribute millions of dollars in state aid to local schools unless voters approve a proposed constitutional amendment creating a statewide property-tax levy.

Officials in many school districts worry that the judge's threat will make it impossible to pass the special tax levies they need to pay their bills, while some educators speculate that the supreme court will eliminate the levies entirely, throwing the state's more affluent districts into a fiscal crisis.

"We're on the edge of yet another political brouhaha," said state Representative Lyle Sattes, chairman of the House Education Committee. "I just hope the voters will look beyond it and think about the future of the state's children."

Forces at Odds

Mr. Sattes said he was worried that4partisan bickering would alienate voters so much that they would reject the proposed tax amendment when they go to the polls in March. Passage of the amendment, Mr. Sattes and others said, is the only way to avert a political crisis that has been brewingfor much of the decade.

Ever since 1982, when Arthur Recht, a state circuit judge, ruled that the legislature had failed its constitutional duty to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to all of the state's children, legal and political forces have been at odds over the issue.

A key element in Judge Recht's decision was the widespread use of excess property-tax levies. Because many poorer counties cannot raise the additional revenues, he ruled, spending patterns in the state are highly unequal and thus unconstitutional.

Since that time, efforts to improve the system have had only limited success. In 1984, voters defeated a proposal that would have earmarked funds for increased state aid and distributed excess levy funds from a statewide pool.

This year, Judge Recht's successor, Larry Cook, issued an ultimatum to the legislature--and by extension, to voters. Unless the proposed amendment is passed in March, Judge Cook said, he will seize control of the aid program and begin redistributing funds to compensate those districts that do not have special levies.

If the judge carries out his threat, "there is not a county in the state that will be able to pass its levy," predicted Tom Vogel, president of the West Virginia Teachers Association.

But political observers, saying they are deeply pessimistic about the amendment's chances, note that West Virginians have turned down a number of education-related proposals in recent years.

Opponents of the measure are "appealing to local prejudice," said Sam Harshbarger, a former state supreme court justice. "They are telling voters that Judge Cook wants to take their money and send it to kids on the other side of the state."

Political Tensions

With political tensions already high, the wvea further complicated the picture earlier this year when it filed suit in the state high court against both the legislature and Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr.

Recent cuts in education spending, the union argues, violate the state's own standards for school quality. The suit also claims that the legislature has failed to make the improvements ordered in the Recht decision.

"No one owns up to the responsibility for education," said William McGinley, the wvea's lawyer. "All I hear is, 'You can't make me do it."'

Legislative leaders argue that they did as much as possible this year to protect education from a round of deep budget cuts required by the state's shaky economy.

Without more revenue, said Mr. Sattes, "it would be real difficult to figure out how we could give any higher priority to education." Governor Moore, he noted, has rejected proposed increases in income and sales taxes.

Some legislators are pushing a longstanding proposal to increase the property taxes paid by large mining and lumber companies. But such a measure must overcome the heavy political clout traditionally wielded by such business interests.

"There is an ever-present pressure by the corporations to repress the tax base," said Mr. Harshbarger. "They don't care about our schools."

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