FRANKFORT — The presidents of the state's two largest universities appeared before lawmakers to plead against proposed 2.5 percent budget cuts that they said could irrevocably harm higher education's progress. Both said tuition would rise, and University of Louisville President James Ramsey even mentioned possible layoffs.
But the chairman of the budget subcommittee on postsecondary education, Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, said he thinks the cuts will remain because of the state's dire budget situation.
Instead, he said during and after the meeting, he wished college presidents such as Ramsey and University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto would push harder for a proposal to generate more state revenue by overhauling Kentucky's tax system.
"Do I think it would be helpful if they would advocate more forcefully for tax reform? The answer is yes," Simpson said after the meeting. "We need public declarations; they could have declared it today."
All of the state's universities have huge alumni bases, wealthy and influential trustees, and avid sports fans, all of whom have their university's best interests at heart, Simpson said.
University presidents must be sensitive to the wishes of both political parties, Simpson said, but they have a duty to push tax reform.
"It's part of their job. ... This is where the rubber hits the road," he said.
After the meeting, Capilouto said he has the ear of Big Blue Nation, as UK's ardent fan base is known, but "I look to those who are elected to make the decision."
"I don't speak for BBN when it comes to proposals for more funding," Capilouto said.
Ramsey, a longtime state budget director before he went to U of L, has written editorials and spoken publicly in favor of tax modernization.
Gov. Steve Beshear has presented a tax overhaul plan that is projected to increase state revenue by $210 million a year if fully implemented. However, the plan has received little support from lawmakers in a year when all 100 House members and half of the Senate is up for re-election.
One Republican leader said Thursday that the reticence of university presidents to push for tax reform is wise.
"They have to decide what they feel is best for them, but they are a state agency so I would recommend some caution in their approach," said Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. "I certainly don't want them to take the Terry Holliday approach."
Holliday, the state education commission, has rustled up plenty of support across the state in favor of increased funding for K-12 education, and has spoken forcefully for both tax reform and expanded gaming as a way to pay for it.
Thayer said the Senate wants to work with university presidents in a collaborative fashion.
"I think they're cognizant of the budget difficulties we face, just as we're cognizant of the budget difficulties they face," he said.
Capilouto and Ramsey presented lawmakers with many facts and figures about their schools' progress, including better graduation rates, increased research funding and expanded infrastructure across their two campuses. But further budget cuts will hinder the schools in their competitive race for better students and star faculty, they said.
"You're going to see a quiet erosion, and what you need is talent and infrastructure," Capilouto told the committee.
He presented a slide that showed every surrounding state except West Virginia was starting to increase funding for higher ed, putting Kentucky at an even greater disadvantage.
UK has lost more than $50 million in state funding in recent years. The cut included in Beshear's proposed budget is about $7 million.
Simpson said he's sympathetic to higher education's plight, and agrees that the proposed cuts could damage one of the state's most important services.
"New revenue is warranted," he said, and "they could have said that."
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.