UPike Bill May Be In Trouble

Mar 1, 2012

FRANKFORT, Ky.  A proposal to create a public university in central Appalachia appeared to be in trouble Thursday in the Kentucky legislature.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo told reporters the proposal to use some $13 million a year from a coal tax to turn the private University of Pikeville into a public school may be revamped in a way that still could benefit mountain students.

"I don't know if it could pass this session," Stumbo said Thursday. "I don't know if anybody thought it might pass this session."

What started as a seemingly unlikely proposal had gathered momentum early in the legislative session. But that waned in recent weeks, largely because some local officials and leaders of existing public universities objected.

Former Gov. Paul Patton, now president of the University of Pikeville, said Thursday a compromise is being drafted that would allow a portion of the coal tax revenue to be appropriated for college scholarships for students in mountain communities, where fewer than one in 10 people have bachelor's degrees.

Morehead State University President Wayne Andrews, who opposed the University of Pikeville proposal, had suggested a scholarship program during testimony to the House Education Committee earlier this week. Patton agreed Thursday that scholarships could help address the region's low college graduation rates.

He said using revenue taxes on mined coal for scholarships "is probably more palatable, more doable" than creating another public university.

Gov. Steve Beshear has hired a consulting firm to review the proposal for a new public university and to report the findings by March 15, less than a month before the legislature adjourns for the year.

"I recognize and have recognized for quite some time that there's not going to be time to absorb that report," Patton said. "So, rather than not addressing the problem for another couple of years, I would certainly support a solution that begins to address the problem."

Some critics had complained that the economic recession has pinched the state's existing universities and that Kentucky can little afford a ninth four-year campus. Proponents argued that using funding from a pool of cash available only for coalfield projects would not infringe on the existing universities.

The University of Pikeville now has about 1,100 full-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs, including a school of osteopathic medicine with the mission of producing more doctors for the medically underserved region. By going public, the school would be able to reduce tuition from $17,000 to $7,000 a year, making a college education far more affordable for mountain students.

The funding source would be coal severance tax revenue that's earmarked for multi-county economic development projects in the region. Patton said the latest estimates show the tax on mined coal could provide nearly $13 million a year.

The typically tightknit mountain caucus wasn't united creating another public university. While Stumbo championed the proposal, House Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, opposed it.

Adkins feared the proposal would negatively impact his alma mater, Morehead State University, which now draws students from the Pikeville area.