The political wild card in this year's General Assembly is a high-powered proposal to make private University of Pikeville a state-supported school.
The idea is being pushed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Gov. Paul Patton, who is now the University of Pikeville's president. The idea has solid support from southeast Kentucky legislators and community leaders. Gov. Steve Beshear has ordered a thorough study.
Like many ideas that sound good but get complicated as you dig into them, this proposal needs thorough study. But it also provides an excellent opportunity for broader public discussion about how more educational attainment could improve life in Kentucky and how we should go about paying for it.
Having the state assume ownership of a private school is a very Kentucky thing to do. That is how five of the state's eight public universities came to be: Western and Eastern in 1906, Murray and Morehead in 1922 and the University of Louisville in 1970.
"This sounds like the same thing: We've got a campus here and all we have to do is make it a state school," said Bill Ellis, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University and author of the new book, A History of Education in Kentucky. "It all comes down to politics and who has the votes."
Creation of those state universities was generally a good thing for Kentucky, Ellis said. It made education more accessible and brought economic development and culture to communities across the state.
Many people in southeast Kentucky argue that their region — with some of the state's highest rates of poverty and lowest levels of educational attainment — has been shortchanged.
Southeast Kentucky is part of the service areas of Eastern and Morehead state universities, but both campuses are a long way from many of the region's towns and hollows. Pikeville and surrounding areas would no doubt benefit economically and culturally by having a state university.
But for years now, the General Assembly has cut state support for higher education. Given that, can Kentucky taxpayers afford another university mouth to feed? Stumbo and Patton say that is not a problem: Rather than using general fund money, state support can come from Eastern Kentucky's coal severance tax revenues.
At this point, let's step back and look at the big picture. What do legislators really need to do to help Appalachian Kentucky catch up with the rest of the state — and Kentucky catch up with the rest of the nation?
Let's begin with the notion that more state support for education is essential. That is because nothing has more power to improve Kentucky's economy and society than educational attainment.
Regardless of whether Pikeville becomes a state university, lawmakers should find ways to reverse the budget-cutting trends that have contributed to skyrocketing tuition at Kentucky's state universities and made them less affordable.
The stated goal of the University of Pikeville proposal is to make higher education more affordable and attainable for mountain students. But are there more cost-effective ways to do that?
Rather than taking on another campus, would Kentucky get more bang for the buck by using coal severance tax money to finance scholarships for mountain students at Kentucky's existing public and private universities, including Pikeville?
Perhaps those scholarships could be supplemented with loans from severance tax money that would be forgiven if students lived and worked in the mountains for a few years after graduation. That could curb the region's historic "brain drain."
But let's not stop there. The Pikeville proposal creates a perfect opportunity for a broader discussion about the severance tax that Kentucky has levied on the coal industry since the 1970s, and how that money should be used.
The severance tax rate of 4.5 percent, which hasn't changed in decades, is among the lowest of major coal-producing states. It generates more than $200 million a year. But over the years, much of that money has been wasted on building vacant industrial parks and other political pet projects, plowed back into subsidies for the coal industry or gone to benefit parts of Kentucky nowhere near the coalfields.
If the severance tax's goal is to improve life and create a new economy in the coalfields for when all of the coal is gone, there could be no better use for that money than improving educational attainment.
So regardless of whether the University of Pikeville receives state support, the General Assembly should take this opportunity to raise the coal severance tax to national norms and focus the money on education. That's right: Turn this political wild card into a trump card for Kentucky's future.