Politics & Government

Proposal to make UPike a state school meets some opposition in Eastern Ky.

University of Pikeville
University of Pikeville

Several judge-executives in southeastern Kentucky don't favor the way lawmakers have proposed paying for a measure to make the private University of Pikeville a state-supported school.

Under House Bill 260, Pikeville would receive coal-severance tax money from a fund normally used for projects in 12 counties in the state's eastern coalfields.

Several county administrators said they don't oppose making Pikeville a state school, but they don't want that move to take money from a fund their counties have used for projects such as expanding waterlines and constructing buildings for manufacturing prospects.

"We have many needs for that money in our area," said Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble. "We depend on this."

Opposition by local officials could complicate efforts to pass HB 260, though a co-sponsor, Rep. Leslie Combs, said supporters hope to win over the county officials.

The bill was filed last week, but House Education Committee chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway, said he would not call the bill until a study ordered by Gov. Steve Beshear was completed.

Rollins called the bill interesting, but he said he was concerned that a new public university had never been part of any strategic plan by higher education's governing agency, the Council on Postsecondary Education.

"It kind of came out of nowhere," Rollins said Monday. "I have concerns that it hasn't been thought through. I understand that part of the state and other parts of the state may be underserved."

The bids to do the study are being assessed by the Finance and Administration Cabinet, but there's no deadline for the contract to be awarded or the study to be finished, spokeswoman Cindy Lanham said.

The fund at issue in the bill is the multicounty coal-severance tax fund.

The state collects a tax on coal mined and processed in Kentucky, and some of the money goes back to the counties where the coal was mined.

The counties get some for their own use, but two or more counties must partner to make requests for money from the multicounty fund.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat who is a co-sponsor of HB 260, has said making the University of Pike ville a state school would require $6 million the first year from the multicounty fund, then $13 million a year during the next decade.

The plan would use only tax money derived from mining and processing coal in 12 counties that would become UPike's service area: Bell, Breathitt, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Perry and Pike.

Stumbo and other supporters have argued that making Pike-ville a state university would be an economic boon to the area because the lowered tuition would allow more people to attend college, and they stay in the area afterward.

A public, four-year university in Pikeville would reduce "brain drain, whereby people from the mountains of Central Appalachia go away to college and never return, depriving the area of their intellectual ability," the Pike County Fiscal Court said in a resolution supporting the proposal.

Judge-executives throughout the area say they support making Pikeville a state school, but they're divided on using the multicounty fund to do it.

Several strongly support the proposal.

The possibility of cutting tuition to increase access to higher education would create "a tremendous ripple that would affect so many people," said Floyd County Judge-Executive R.D. "Doc" Marshall.

Marshall said his county has used multicounty coal severance funds for water and sewer projects, but he would be glad to see the money used to support the University of Pikeville.

Judge-executives in Knott, Magoffin and Martin counties also have said they support the idea.

But Harlan County magistrates voted unanimously last week for a resolution against using multicounty coal-severance funds for the University of Pikeville.

"We can't afford to invest that kind of coal-severance money in one project when the whole region's suffering," Magistrate David Kennedy said.

Judge-executives in Bell, Perry and Letcher counties also told the Herald-Leader they don't support using the fund for Pike ville.

The officials said multicounty funds are an important source of money for much-needed projects.

Perry County has filed a request with three other counties for $400,000 from the multicounty fund for a regional animal shelter, for instance, Noble said.

Some local officials also said they don't think making Pikeville a state school would benefit their counties.

There are other public, four-year schools that young people from Bell County are more likely to attend, said Judge-Executive Albey Brock.

"I don't see it helping us a bit," he said of making Pikeville a state school.

Some judge-executives also said there was a concern that if coal-severance tax collections fall, Pikeville would take an even larger chunk of the multicounty fund.

Combs, a Democrat who worked at the University of Pikeville for many years, said she understands the concerns of county officials about using the multicounty fund to support the school.

She acknowledged that doing so would leave less for counties to request. But she said the plan wouldn't drain the fund. State officials project an increase in coal-tax revenue, she said, so there will be multicounty money for other projects even if the Pike ville bill passes.

"We're not taking the whole thing," Combs said.

She also disagreed that there would be no benefit for some southeastern Kentucky counties in having a state university in Pikeville.

The university could set up programs with schools throughout the region, such as Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan County, she said.

And students come from across the state to the school of osteopathic medicine at the University of Pikeville, Combs said.

The Pike County Fiscal Court said in its resolution that making Pikeville a state school would benefit the entire state by "increasing the commonwealth's overall intellectual capital and meeting an educational need in Eastern Kentucky that could pull coal-producing counties out of the cycle of poverty."

The chances of HB 260 passing are unclear.

Brock, however, noted Stumbo's clout in the legislature.

"Anything he's truly engaged in, it's got a shot," Brock said.

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