Kentucky Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo is playing political hardball when it comes to realizing his dream of making the University of Pikeville a state university. Instead of agreeing to further dilute state funding to higher education by adding another school to the state universities and community and technical colleges that already are inadequately funded, other members of the House of Representatives should resist Stumbo’s efforts to force the legislature to add a state university the state simply cannot afford.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, announced Monday he will not support an increase in higher education funding until the University of Pikeville is a state school.
If Stumbo were just a rank-and-file legislator, such a view would not mean much. After all with 100 members in the Kentucky House, there is little that one individual member can do to hold up funding for higher education, or anything else for that matter.
But Greg Stumbo is not a rank-and-file House member. As speaker, he has the power to direct the flow of legislation in the House and can just about single-handedly prevent a bill from ever being brought up for a vote. He can coerce an individual House member to support state funding for UPike in exchange for the speaker’s help in getting one of the legislator’s pet bills approved. That’s the way political hardball is played in Frankfort.
In our view, making UPike a state university would not be a wise use of state dollars, particularly at a time when the state has repeatedly been forced to make cuts to balance its budget.
We can see some advantages to making UPike a state university. Stumbo says he believes making the school, which was founded by the Presbyterian Church and sits high on a hill overlooking Pikeville, a state university is the best way to improve access to higher education for students in Appalachia, and he may be right.
However, there are other ways of providing residents of Pikeville the opportunity of receiving a four-year education at a state university without making UPike a state school. Morehead State University offers a number of degree programs that give students in Ashland the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree without ever leaving the city. If it does not do so already, we are certain MSU would be willing to do the same in Pikeville, Prestonsburg or Paintsville.
In fact, when the 2012 General Assembly debated making UPike a state university, the MSU Board of Regents opposed the proposal and MSU encouraged it many alumni and other supporters in this region to let their legislators know that they are against adding the University of Pikeville to the state university system. Several powerful members of the General Assembly, including House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook, are MSU graduates with long records of supporting their alma mater.
MSU attracts many students from the Pikeville area and making UPike a state university would weaken MSU’s ability to draw students from there. We can’t conceive of Adkins, the No. 2 person in the House, joining Stumbo in the speaker’s crusade to make UPike a state school, and a House-approved compromise that would have given UPike some state support failed to pass the Senate earlier this year. Gov. Steve Beshear then authorized a pilot scholarship program for students in nine eastern Kentucky counties.
Stumbo is not the only influential political ally UPike has. Paul Patton now is president of UPike, and the former two-term governor remains influential in Frankfort.
However, Pikeville is not the only Kentucky community lobbying for a state university. Many influential people in Somerset have been pushing for years for a state university for the same reason Pikeville wants one. Residents of both Pikeville and Somerset are convinced they are in communities that have largely been overlooked and both have a shortage of college graduates. In fact, if anything, Somerset can make an even stronger argument for a state university than Pikeville can. For that matter, there are a many people in Ashland who think this city should have a state university, although calls for creating one have subsided in recent years.
However, this is not the time for creating a new state university in Pikeville, in Somerset or anywhere else in Kentucky. A strong case can be made for increased state funding for higher education just to make up for the cuts in funding in recent years. However, any new higher education dollars should go to the existing state universities and community and technical colleges, not to create a new state university.