Story by Abby Siegel, Assistant News Editor
As students marched on the Kentucky State Capitol last week, House Democratic leaders said their version of the state budget will be better for public universities than Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposal.
“In the House version of the budget, higher education and K through 12 education all across Kentucky will see some reason to smile,” said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
Kentucky public university students from across the state marched side-by-side Thursday from Kentucky State University to the State Capitol shouting, “Education matters,;save our schools.” They held signs declaring disapproval toward Bevin’s proposed budget cuts to higher education which would cut funding by 4.5 percent before June 30 and an another 9 percent cut the following fiscal year.
The march concluded at the steps of the Capitol Annex building, with more than 200 students camping out for the afternoon, bundled in hats and scarves in the freezing temperatures, sharing testimonies of the impact their college experience has had on their lives. Many students spoke of the music and theater programs they feared would be cut if the governor’s budget is approved without change.
More than half of the activists were from Murray State and included students and faculty. They met at the Roy Stewart Stadium parking lot before 5 a.m. to reach the Capitol by 10:30 a.m.
The Capitol was packed with Murray State students as Posters-at-the-Capitol – an opportunity for students to display their research – also occurred at the same time.
“I was inside the rotunda when the students arrived and we could hear them outside chanting,” said Caleb Hughes, senior from Big Spring, Kentucky.
During the rally, Attorney General Andy Beshear joined students in their protest.
“Every single student in the Commonwealth should be able to afford higher education for whatever they want to study, whether that is engineering or French literature,” he said.
“I am with you every single step of the way,” he said.
Senator Gerald Neal also joined students during the peaceful protest and said he was on the side of the students.
President Bob Davies was at the Capitol for a legislative session during the march, and he assured students that their voices had been heard.
Rep. Kenny Imes, R-Calloway said he isn’t sure where he stands on the proposed cuts, but he knows he wouldn’t vote on it without exceptions.
“If there are cuts, I have no business saying where they ought to be,” Imes said. “Nobody wants to get cut and no one ought to get cut.”
He said he is particularly concerned with the funding of the Breathitt Veterinary Center because it isn’t a teaching facility.
The center is located in Hopkinsville, Kentucky and is part of the Hutson School of Agriculture. It is a diagnostic center that works with veterinarians to promote animal health and prevent death from animal diseases.
“I think the people of Kentucky recognize we’ve got a real crisis on our hands,” Imes said.
Another concern of Imes: the pension system structure in Kentucky.
“We’re invested so heavily in the stock market, it scares me to death to think about. Yes, we fully fund it and the stock market collapses again, what have we done?” he said.
Kentucky has the second-worst pension system in America and is 44 percent underfunded, according to a report by CNN. The proposed budget cuts would put $1.1 billion dollars into the Kentucky Retirement System and the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System but the pension system would still be underfunded by $24.4 billion.
Imes said he doesn’t think the House will consider voting on the budget until after March 8.
“When the budget leaves the House, it will be heavy on education,” Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, said.
He said he would like to see all cuts restored. If not, the results would be “devastating.”
“These cuts are really a tuition increase,” Rand said.
Imes said he sees three options: keep the governor’s proposed budget, give full funding and raise taxes, or something in between.
Rand graduated from a liberal arts school, Hanover College, and said he thinks a broad-based education is very important. He said he doesn’t agree with Gov. Bevin’s comment disregarding the importance of majors outside of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“We don’t know what is going to happen March 8,” Imes said.
“My total loyalty is to Murray and doing everything I can to preserve and protect it,” he said.