- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Legislation pushed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo to expand a scholarship program for students in Kentucky’s struggling coal regions cleared its first hurdle in the General Assembly on Tuesday.

The measure is aimed at increasing the number of people attaining four-year college degrees in the eastern and western Kentucky coalfields. The students, for the most part, would attend four-year college campuses in coal counties, in hopes that they pursue careers in the same region after graduation.

“One of the problems we have in eastern Kentucky is that we export not only coal … but we’ve exported a lot of our talent and a lot of our youth,” said Stumbo, whose district is in the Appalachian coalfields.

The bill easily cleared the House Education Committee on Tuesday. The measure seeks to make permanent a pilot project started by Gov. Steve Beshear a couple of years ago.

Under that test project, 409 students received scholarships averaging $2,723, Stumbo said. So far, nearly 100 of those students have received bachelor’s degrees, he said.

Scholarships are funded with coal severance tax funds. Participating students have to attend four-year campuses in their region, unless their academic programs aren’t offered locally.

Those schools would include Alice Lloyd College, Brescia University, Kentucky Wesleyan College, Union College, the University of the Cumberland and the University of Pikeville. It also would include coal-county satellite campuses of Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, Murray State and Western Kentucky universities.

The bill also was touted as a way to boost the economy in the coalfields.

“If they’re educated in the region, they stay in the region,” said Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs of Pikeville, who is co-sponsoring the bill.

Beshear included $2 million per year for the scholarship program as part of the two-year state budget plan he presented to lawmakers last month.

That amount is expected to double available scholarships, Stumbo said. Under the bill, the scholarship program would be expanded to include 34 coal-producing counties in eastern and western Kentucky. To be eligible, students must have already earned at least 60 credits toward a bachelor’s degree.

Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, said he would like to see guarantees that the scholarships would be distributed in a way to ensure that every coal-producing county would benefit.

“I would feel better if we were guaranteed so many slots,” he said.

Nelson said that students in Bell County, which is part of his district, received about a dozen scholarships under the pilot project - far fewer than in some other Appalachian counties.

___

The legislation is House Bill 2.

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