Bill would expand scholarship program to Kentucky's 34 coal counties

lblackford@herald-leader.comFebruary 7, 2013 

A Pikeville lawmaker wants to cement and expand a pilot scholarship program aimed at boosting college-going rates in Eastern Kentucky.

Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs has filed a bill that would make permanent the nine-county program — created last year with an executive order by Gov. Steve Beshear — and spread it to all 34 coal-producing counties, including eight in Western Kentucky.

The program would continue to use coal severance tax dollars to provide grants to college juniors and seniors to help them finish their four year degrees.

House Bill 210 aims to continue a compromise from last year that emerged out of a fight over making the University of Pikeville a state university. Supporters said taking UPike public would improve college access to south-eastern Kentuckians, while opponents said it would bleed financing from already-suffering state universities.

The proposed compromise, a scholarship program for students from the region, failed to make it out of the state Senate. So Gov. Steve Beshear set up a smaller program, which used $4.3 million from coal severance taxes to help students from nine counties in Eastern Kentucky, the majority of whom attend UPike.

The 324 students in the program come from Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin and Pike counties. According to the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program, 213 students attend UPike, 89 go to Morehead State University, 18 go to Lindsey Wilson College and four go to Lincoln Memorial University.

Students need to have 60 credit hours before applying for grants, which range from $2,200 to $6,600 a year. They must attend post-secondary institutions or extension campuses in the designated coal-producing counties.

Combs' bill also would provide grants of up to $150,000 to help community colleges provide information to students about the scholarships, since many students would use the money to transfer from a two-year to a four-year school.

"This is just exactly what we intended at the end of the session last year," Combs said Thursday. "It's identical."

Combs said she has worked with past opponents of the UPike proposal, such as the presidents of Morehead State University and Eastern Kentucky University, and that they now are supportive.

The bill doesn't call for a specific appropriation to fund the program, but Combs said it would come from multi-county coal severance tax dollars that would be appropriated next year, when lawmakers create a new two-year state budget.

However, coal taxes are in decline because of decreased coal production around the state. In the 10 Eastern Kentucky counties that produced the most coal in 2011, production in 2012 was down 28.9 percent, according to information provided by the state Department for Energy Development and Independence, using federal production data. Combs said she was concerned about the decline in coal taxes.

"Everyone has expressed this worry," she said. "That's something we have to face but it won't stop me from going forward. I can't think of a better way to spend them."

UPike President and former Governor Paul Patton said the current program is going well and "it's been instrumental with keeping some kids in school."

Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, who chairs the House Education Committee, is a co-sponsor of the bill along with House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps.

"This is a great use of coal severance money, better than some of the things I've seen it used for," Rollins said.

Stumbo has said he will continue fighting to make UPike a public school, but Patton said it was clear that goal is not feasible with Kentucky's lean budgets.

"I support the concept that there should be a state supported university here, but that is not the objective right now," he said. "In view of circumstances, this is the best that's achievable."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359 Twitter: @lbblackford

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