FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Democratic majority in Kentucky's House of Representatives wants to offer free community college tuition to all of the state's high school graduates, signaling a likely confrontation with new Republican Gov. Matt Bevin over state spending.
Bevin, who took office in December, has proposed slashing $650 million in state spending over the next two years, including cuts of 4.5 percent this year and 9 percent in each of the next two years for the state's colleges and universities. Bevin wants to use the money to begin paying down the state's $36 billion public pension debt, which he and other Republican leaders say could bankrupt the state if left unchecked.
College presidents have pushed back, promising tuition increases and academic program cuts if the reductions stay in place. On Wednesday, House Democrats said their budget proposal will take as much as $33 million from Bevin's pension plan over the next two years and use it to pay the tuition for all Kentucky high school graduates who can meet certain standards. It is modeled after a similar program in Tennessee that was enacted by a Republican governor and state legislature.
The new program, dubbed Work Ready Kentucky Scholarships, does not replace other local, state and federal scholarship programs. Students must still apply for those. But this new program will pay for whatever cost those programs do not cover. To qualify, students must have a high school diploma or GED by the time they turn 19. They must enroll in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System immediately after high school, take at least 12 credit hours per semester and maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average.
"Before the naysayers might come forward and say, 'That's too much to spend,' I would say, that's not spending, that's investment," Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said." That's an investment Kentucky must and can make. The dollars are there."
House budget committee chairman Rick Rand of Bedford would not say Wednesday if the House's budget proposal would include Bevin's proposed cuts for colleges and universities. Kentucky Community and Technical College System President Jay Box has said Bevin's budget cuts would force him request a raise hike of 8.8 percent. Wednesday, Box said the new scholarship program could bring in as many as 4,000 new students who otherwise would not have enrolled.
Box said that would help tuition revenue, but said he did not know if it would be enough to prevent a tuition increase if the budget cuts go through.
Hal Heiner, Bevin's education secretary, said "there appears to be significant common ground" between Bevin and the Democrats on this issue. But he said the goals can be achieved "without robbing" from the money set aside to pay down the pension debt.
"We would like to see the House proposal expanded beyond (community colleges) to give more opportunity to our students," Heiner said in a news release without elaborating on how the state could pay for such a program.
Bevin has not backed down in the face of intense criticism from the higher education community. Last month, he spoke to a rally of community college supporters at the Capitol, telling them "the cuts have to come from somewhere." And over the weekend, he posted a video to his Facebook page indicating he would not compromise on his proposal.
"I want to be very clear. There is no chance I am going to sign a budget bill that borrows money from our children and grandchildren to take care of today's problems," Bevin said in the video. "That is immoral, it is irresponsible."