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Letcher officials say no to UPike plan

The Letcher County Fiscal Court has voted unanimously to ask the Kentucky House of Representatives not to approve a bill that would allow use of coal severance tax funds to pay for the now-private University of Pikeville to become a four-year state-supported university.

District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming said that while no one on the court opposes the idea of UPike becoming a state school, he believes it is discriminatory to require eastern Kentucky residents to spend their severance tax funds on a state university when other such schools are funded through the state’s General Fund.

Letcher County Judge/ Executive Jim Ward agreed with Fleming and said the legislation proposed by State Rep. Leslie Combs and others would take $13 million out of multi-county coal severance funds for at least 10 years. Ward said the multi-county fund is the only source of income for counties to work together on projects of mutual benefi t.

The legislation is House Bill 260. It is expected to sail through the House but to run into trouble in the state Senate.

On Tuesday, former Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, who is UPike’s president, visited Frankfort to make a personal appeal to lawmakers to create the new public university.

“ How can we attract good jobs,” asked Patton, “when our workforce is so undereducated? We cannot eradicate the neglect of the past. We can only work to make sure it’s not continued into the future.”

Some critics have complained that the economic recession has pinched the state’s existing universities and that Kentucky can’t afford a ninth four- year campus. Proponents counter that other universities needn’t worry because the proposal would be funded from a pool of cash available only for coalfield projects, not other universities.

Patton said existing public universities haven’t served the region well.

“ It has become more and more apparent that we need intellectual capital as well as physical capital if we’re to solve the problems of eastern Kentucky,” he told lawmakers Tuesday. “I realize this more today than I did when I worked with you here in Frankfort.”

The University of Pikeville now has about 1,100 full-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs, including a school of osteopathic medicine with the mission of producing more doctors for the medically underserved region. By going public, the school could reduce tuition from $17,000 to $7,000 a year, making a college education far more affordable for students in a 12-county service area that would extend from Middlesboro in the south to Inez in the north.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, accompanied Patton in asking the House Education Committee on Tuesday to approve the proposal.

Stumbo said mountain residents need a four-year state university closer to their homes. The nearest ones now, Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University, are more than two hours away from Pikeville.

“If you want to pull eastern Kentucky out of this cycle of poverty it finds itself in, here is a solution,” Stumbo said. “And I would wager any amount to any person that nobody’s got a better solution. If they have, it’s been hidden for all these years.”

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