A proposal to use coal severance tax dollars for college scholarships might have failed during the General Assembly earlier this year, but the idea is far from dead.
Two proposals are vying for Gov. Steve Beshear's approval through the Department for Local Government, which distributes grants funded by coal severance money.
The first, pushed by the University of Pikeville, would provide scholarships for students from nine coal-producing counties. The second, engineered by the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, would include students from all 25 counties in the Southeast Kentucky Coal Region.
The issue sparked controversy earlier this year when UPike President Paul Patton, a former governor, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, proposed making UPike a public school to improve college-going rates in Eastern Kentucky.
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When that idea proved unpopular, they agreed to a compromise that used coal severance money to fund scholarships for students who attend any school in their native coal-producing counties. However, the bill failed during final negotiations with the Republican-led Senate.
"No one has given me a satisfactory answer why it wasn't passed," Patton said Monday. "But the governor has the authority to do the same thing under the existing law. That's why we asked."
Patton's idea would cost $6 million over two years and would serve students in nine counties: Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Pike, Martin, Johnson, Floyd, Magoffin and Knott.
Students who attend a public or private college in those counties and have completed 60 credit hours would receive a scholarship equal to 40 percent of the difference between the institutions' tuition and the total of all state and federal aid the student gets.
The scholarships also could benefit students at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, and public and private extension campuses in the area, such as Morehead State University's campus at Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg.
In addition, UPike would establish extension campuses in all nine counties. Some of those would be at existing community college campuses, but students who choose a degree program at those campuses would be eligible for the scholarships.
"The scholarships would in effect bring tuition cost down to what they would expect at comprehensive universities," Patton said.
He said his plan excluded Perry and Leslie counties because they are served by the University Center of the Mountains consortium in Hazard, which is a collective campus operated by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and private schools.
More notably, University of the Cumberlands and Union College in Barbourville are outside the proposed coverage area. The former is in the district of Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and the latter is represented by Senate Majority Floor Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.
That's why Jim Taylor, president of University of the Cumberlands, said he filed a proposal that requests $32 million over two years in coal severance money from all 25 coal-producing counties in Eastern Kentucky. The request was turned in jointly by the judge-executives of Whitley and Knox counties.
The proposal would help students from the region who attend public or private college in the region. It would pay for whatever is not covered by state and federal grants and scholarships, plus $1,000 for books. A portion of the cost would be paid through coal severance tax money, which would be matched by the institution.
"It's less bureaucracy and goes directly to the students for scholarships and books," Taylor said.
Neither Stivers nor Williams was available for comment Monday.
Beshear will have the final say on whether either request gets funded through the Department for Local Government. The department helps distribute federal funds to communities and helps allocate money for projects funded through the multicounty portion of the coal severance fund.
Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said the department had not received any official applications, but they would be reviewed as soon as they were available.
Robert King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, said he had not heard about the Whitley/Knox proposal but that he supported Patton's plan.
"We were pretty disappointed that the proposal never made it out of the legislature, and so Governor Patton took it upon himself to put together a less ambitious proposal in terms of the area covered," King said. "If the model is successful, all the better — he's trying to increase baccalaureate attainment in Eastern Kentucky."
Patton called the plan a "demonstration project" for the legislature.
"I'm assuming the legislature will address the subject more thoroughly than was done last time," he said. "It's too good an idea."
The two schools that might lose students to such a plan are Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University. Neither EKU President Doug Whitlock nor MSU President Wayne Andrews was available for comment Monday.
Bell County Judge-Executive Albey Brock said he opposed the original proposal to use coal-severance money to make UPike a state-supported school but could support the new proposal.
He said he thinks the proposal would benefit young people in Bell County, who would have access to expanded course offerings and wouldn't necessarily have to go to Pikeville for them.
Brock said Bruce Ayers, president at Southeast Community and Technical College, called to tell him the proposal would be good for the school and to solicit Brock's support. The college has a campus in Bell County.