General Assembly opts out of funding for controversial UPike proposal

With a levy of cuts in the state budget, University of Pikeville President Paul Patton has ended the private facility’s bid to become the ninth state institution under the Kentucky General Assembly.

The original bill called for Pikeville to become a public institution serving 12 eastern Kentucky counties, four of which are now served by Eastern Kentucky University and eight that are monitored by Morehead State University.

Proponents of the bill believed the move to be a sound investment into furthering education in the mountainous region as Pikeville tuition costs would decrease and accessibility would increase.

However, opposition of the bill pointed to an already stressed education budget and felt the area was well-served with public universities such as Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky already affordable and easily accessible.

President Randy Dunn said he understands why Pikeville would make a move to become public in the first place and why universities around the state were concerned with the bill.

“The primary reason (for going public) is with state general support you’re able to charge much less in tuition than is the case as being a solely private institution,” Dunn said. “I think that was a big driver behind Pikeville’s push. They were going to be able to drop their tuition from about $13,000 down to a level roughly to what students at Murray State pay and that makes them a more affordable option for students in the area.”

The General Assembly’s budget suggests public universities and colleges are expected to take a six percent cut in funding for the 2012-13 school year.

Don Robertson, vice president of Student Affairs, said the formation of a ninth state facility would not only make budgeting more difficult for the Legislature, but also all public universities in Kentucky.

“You already have funding that is very limited and we’re cutting back for the eight universities we already have,” Robertson said. “Creating a ninth is just going to make it more difficult to provide adequate funding, and they can’t find adequate funding now, so why add another?”

Gov. Steve Beshear commissioned a Colorado-based education consultation group to investigate whether a new public institution in the region would increase the effectiveness and likelihood of degrees in the area.

Findings of the study, which concluded on March 14, confirmed opposition’s fears by stating Kentucky’s eight public universities would suffer a significantly negative financial impact should Pikeville go public.

However, the study also revealed a need for more educational services to be made available to the area, citing that lower education attainment rates pervade the area and are not equivalent to Kentucky education standards.

In 2007, the Census Bureau determined 20 percent of the poorest counties in the U.S. are located in eastern Kentucky, and in 2011 only 18 percent of 24 to 64 year olds in the 12-county region had four-year degrees, compared to the state average of 30 percent.

Patton, a former Kentucky governor, has since reconstructed the proposed bill following the acrimonious rebuttal of several public universities in the eastern coalfield’s region, from where the bill’s funding originnally cam

The new bill, titled House Bill 260, arranges for coal severance taxes to pay for scholarships to students located in the Eastern Kentucky region and planning to attend a private university in the impoverished region.

The scholarships would equal $6,000 per year per student under the proposed bill.

In 2005, coal severance tax (4.5 percent) provided $165 million to Kentucky, divided among the Kentucky General Fund, workman’s compensation, maintenance of coal haul roads, a Local Government Economic Assistance Fund and a Local Government Economic Development Fund.

However, with coal becoming less of an option for energy in a greening U.S. economy, future estimates of generated coal severance tax revenue are significantly lower than necessary for funding postsecondary education.

The highly-revised HB 260 passed in the Kentucky House on March 13 by a vote of 89-7, and now awaits its fate in the Kentucky Senate. The Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee submitted the bill favorably to enter the chamber’s primary docket.

For the time being, Paul Patton told The Courier-Journal on March 2 that a compromise is a step in the right direction.

Said Patton: “I think this at least addresses the problem.”