Nearly 20 years after its inception, the PROMISE Scholarship is still a popular way for West Virginia students to get college financial aid.

Students can now get up to $4,750 per year, and that means the state spends about $40 million annually on the merit-based program.

But because of the state’s $500 million budget shortfall, the program’s future may be in limbo.

Gov. Jim Justice has so far kept a campaign promise to protect the program, but isn’t sure how it will fare if the legislature’s Republican majority opts to require an additional $50 million in cuts to the educational system, a spokesman said.

“The Republicans came out with this budget framework, but they won’t tell the people or even the governor where they want to make these specific cuts. In his state-of-the-state speech, the governor announced his plans to get us out of this hole and jump-start the economy. Our plan is out there but it’s just been crickets from them,” said press secretary Grant Herring.

“Gov. Justice doesn’t believe it is possible to cut our way out of this. Because over the last five years of the Tomblin administration about $500 million has already been cut. To get out of this mess we’d basically be cutting $600 million in just one year if there is no new revenue,” he said.

“They also haven’t specified what money they want to cut out of higher education, so maybe they want to cut the PROMISE Scholarship. But it most certainly would be on the chopping block if they want to get to $50 million in cuts to higher education,” he said.

“One of the biggest line items in higher ed is the PROMISE Scholarship, so it is possible under their scenario to make cuts there. But under the governor’s plan it is protected.”

The bill reauthorizing PROMISE has yet to see action and the deadline is fast approaching.

Delegate Roy Cooper, who represents Summers County, was one of seven Republicans to cosponsor House Bill 2756 reauthorizing the scholarship program.

It was assigned to both the House Finance and Education Committee, but hasn’t yet seen any action, according to Cooper.

Cooper said he supports the financial aid despite the state’s ailing finances. But it may be necessary to reexamine and possibly adjust how the program is administered, he said.

He and House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson have discussed the possibility of modifying who is eligible and for how much financial assistance.

“I can’t speak for the entire House of Delegates but I can tell you the Finance Committee has no intention of putting it on the chopping block. One of the things I have heard is that we may be looking at a way to means test it,” Cooper said.

“That means someone would look at the financial status of a student and the situation they are coming from to see the bigger picture. For example, if I make $100,000 a year and only have one child in college than I don’t need as much from the PROMISE Scholarship for him. But it is different for a single mother of six who is only making $30,000 a year.”

Speaking through a legislative assistant, Nelson said he “doesn’t feel comfortable about making any comments at this time” and would prefer to see what happens first in the Education committee.

“There is funding in the budget for the PROMISE Scholarship but that just puts in money, that doesn’t include any kind of language about requiring any testing. House Bill 2756 is currently still sitting in the House Education Committee and won’t be taken up by the Finance Committee until it comes out of there,” his assistant said.

Crossover day is March 29 and in order to meet the constitutional requirement that bills be read on three separate days they have to be passed out of committee by Saturday “which is pretty much the drop dead date for bills to move on.”

Despite ongoing budget discussions student recipients will soon be receiving a welcome packet and officials are working on the assumption that the program will continue, said Jessica Tice, associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

“Over the past several years of budget reductions we have worked closely with legislative leaders to safeguard the state financial aid program, including PROMISE. And we are continuing that work. We are proceeding as usual with the fall awards,” she said.

A delay in last year’s budget meant that recipients were in limbo for a little while. At that time, high school counselors across the state were told to delay awarding letters for the scholarship until then Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislators had a budget in place.

McDowell County Superintendent of Schools Nelson Spencer acknowledged it’s possible to hear just about anything when the legislature is in session.

That’s why it is best to wait and see what happens, he said.

Spencer said he has no doubt about the lives which have been enriched by the PROMISE Scholarship and believes legislators share that enthusiasm.

“I mean in our area you are talking about students who lived in poverty, and the only reason they got to go to college was because they received the PROMISE Scholarship. It has done plenty of good, and that’s not something you forget very easily,” Spencer said.