CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia residents could attend community and technical college for free under a bill passed by the state Senate for the second straight year.
The bill approved unanimously Wednesday now moves to the House of Delegates, where it stalled a year ago.
Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael, the bill's lead sponsor, said he could not predict how the House will act. The GOP controls both chambers.
"If you're interested in prosperity in West Virginia, this is a 'yes' vote as quick as you can make it," Carmichael said.
According to the West Virginia University researchers, 53 percent of West Virginia adults either are working or looking for work — the lowest labor force participation rate in the nation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the state's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 5.1 percent in December was the third highest in the nation behind Alaska and Washington, D.C.
New House Speaker Roger Hanshaw wants to focus on workforce training opportunities and said earlier this month he wasn't sure whether the community college approach was the way to do that.
Senate Finance Committee chairman Craig Blair, a Republican from Berkeley, acknowledged the bill's opposition from some House members who believe it is another handout.
"We know what this bill's going to do," Blair said. "This is not an entitlement in any way. It's an investment in the people of West Virginia. It's a big deal."
The bill would authorize tuition grants to West Virginians at least 18 years old who have completed a secondary program.
It would require passing a drug test each semester, maintaining a 2.0 grade-point average, taking at least six credit hours a semester and performing at least eight hours of community service.
Recipients would have to repay grants if they don't live in West Virginia for two years after getting their degree or certificate.
Blair said the bill targets those at risk of going on welfare, food stamps or not finding a job and that the estimated $8 million cost of the bill will be saved later on through increased income tax collections.
"Instead of being tax takers, they turn into taxpayers," he said. "That's a win for the state of West Virginia."
Senators on Tuesday defeated an amendment that would have expanded the bill to the state's four-year colleges, which would have greatly increased the cost. Carmichael said there will be opportunities later to look at expanding the program.
Some four-year schools such as Fairmont State University say the bill would put them at a disadvantage by giving students incentives to choose community colleges. Fairmont State shares a campus with Pierpont Community and Technical College.