FRANKFORT — House Speaker Greg Stumbo pledged Friday to rework a draft of the two-year state budget over the weekend to prevent cuts to public colleges and universities.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, emerged from a closed-door conference with higher education leaders with a different attitude toward them than he displayed earlier in the day, when he vented frustrations about their high salaries and lobbying expenses.
Specifically, Stumbo chastised Michael B. McCall, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, a day after McCall led a rally in the rotunda with more than 600 students and staff wearing t-shirts and passing out material paid for by the system's $1.3 million marketing budget.
He blasted McCall for asking for more state funding to help keep tuition rates down while he receives a total compensation package of about $600,000 a year.
That is "about the epitome of hypocrisy," Stumbo said during his weekly news conference with Senate President David Williams.
"It's a little bit offensive to me that some of these folks have outrageous salaries, they support intolerable tuition increases and they cry when the legislature asks for some charity with this recession pain that we're all going through," Stumbo said.
But Stumbo backed off much of his criticism later in the day, and instead told reporters he would push to find money to keep the public universities and colleges at current state funding levels, rather than cutting them 2 percent as House leaders had originally planned.
"We are going to try to restore their funding," Stumbo said. "We're going to try to give them back both years."
That means House leaders — who will work over the weekend on a revised plan to address a $1.2 billion shortfall over the next two years — must find an additional $20 million each year to avoid the cuts. Stumbo wouldn't say where that money could come from.
Stumbo's commitment to avoid cuts wasn't as much of a change of heart as it was a mutual understanding between House leaders and the university presidents about expectations, said former Gov. Paul Patton, who is chair of the Council on Postsecondary Education and president of Pikeville College.
"I think the presidents got a better idea of what their legislature wants to see. And what they want to see are more hard facts in a concise manner," Patton said.
He and the council's president, Robert L. King, accompanied McCall and six university presidents to the meeting.
"It was a very lively and open exchange," Stumbo said of the meeting. "We told them that we want to help them, that we're going to try to help them, that in exchange we expect results ... (and) that we're going to start asking tougher questions and demanding more from them."
Earlier, Stumbo complained that university leaders need to do a better job justifying the state's roughly $1 billion-a-year investment in them, particularly when key indicators, such as student retention and graduation rates, lag behind other states.
"I'm going to listen to them, but they're going to start off on the wrong foot — unless they tell me they're going to put some standards in place — some higher standards," Stumbo said Friday morning.
After being told of Stumbo's comments about him, McCall responded by saying that "all of us have a tough job to do." McCall said his job "is to focus on the students and that's what I'm trying to do."
At one point, Stumbo suggested lawmakers would erase the proposed budget cuts for universities — but only if the schools agree to hold tuition at 2009-10 levels. That effectively would force presidents to choose between state cuts and the ability to raise tuition.
That idea didn't interest Northern Kentucky University President James Votruba, who noted that state funding only accounts for 30 percent of the school's revenue. Eliminating the proposed budget cut would amount to $1 million, while a 2 percent tuition increase could bring in $4 million to $5 million, he said.
"We will be operating with fewer state dollars now than we had in 2002 and we're serving 3,000 more students," Votruba said. "So you do the numbers. "
NKU isn't looking for more money to add programs or give salary increases, Votruba added. Instead, it's searching for $13 million to fund increases in the cost of utilities, building maintenance, health care and retirement benefits.