What came through most forcefully when House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Gov. Paul Patton talked about a state university in Pikeville was a desire for change.
Southeastern Kentucky has lots of poor people, some rich people, but no substantial middle class, explained Stumbo, who said all the benefits bestowed by a state university would help build a middle class and a healthier economy.
Alas, an analysis by an education consulting firm concluded that making the University of Pikeville a state school would not be transformational. In fact, it wouldn't even come close to raising to the state average college attainment in the targeted counties.
Still, it was encouraging to hear Stumbo's passion for change, because he is the eastern coalfield's most influential political voice and a likely Democratic candidate for governor.
Even before the negative report, he had proposed a compromise that, instead of making UPike a state school, would channel severance tax dollars into financial aid for college students from 16 coal counties.
Stumbo's plan sailed through the House, only to be blocked last week when the Senate voted on the budget. We hope the college aid plan is revived in the budget conference committee.
Even more we hope Stumbo is intellectually honest in his quest for an economic reset for Kentucky's mountains because he can control the agenda. Based on recent comments, we fear he's still in denial.
At a press conference to celebrate the sale of 50,000 "Friends of Coal" license plates, the Associated Press reports, Stumbo said coalfield residents appreciate the mining industry for creating flat land that can be developed. In a rebuff to mountaintop mining critics, Stumbo said he lives on one such development that has a golf course, riding stables and a ballpark.
"To the people who say let's save mountains: Go buy one," Stumbo said. "There's a bunch of them for sale. And if you own it, and you don't want it mined, guess what, it's not going to be mined that way."
Stumbo's rant raises several points. First, development on former strip mines is extremely rare. The Herald-Leader studied state records and discovered there have been development plans for less than 3 percent of the hundreds of thousands of acres that have been stripped.
The Stonecrest development cited by Stumbo is not an example of flat land attracting private investment but required $30 million in public funding.
Stumbo's sarcasm toward those who worry about the health and environmental effects of strip-mining will repel the educated people he claims to want. Turning a blind eye to coal industry abuses undermines quality of life in a region where many people already cannot drink their tap water.
Finally, Stumbo lives most of the time in Lexington. Yes, he has a home in Prestonsburg, which is his legal address, and as House speaker, has to commute to Frankfort frequently. He had to be in Frankfort full-time during the four years he was attorney general and his daughter started school in Lexington.
Still, to understand the coal industry's choke hold on a region that must export its best and brightest, one might start by asking why a mountain politician feels compelled to brag about living on an old strip mine when he lives on an old horse farm.