FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Legislation aimed at expanding a scholarship program for students in Kentucky's struggling coal regions won overwhelming support in the state House on Monday.
The measure is seen as a way to help diversify the economy of coal counties by increasing the number of their residents who achieve four-year college degrees close to home.
"It's proven that if they stay at home and get their education, they're more likely to get that bachelor's degree and not drop out of school," said Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs of Pikeville, a co-sponsor of the bill. "Hopefully, they'll stay in your communities and improve them."
The bill sailed through the House on a 92-0 vote and now goes to the Senate.
The proposal is one of House Speaker Greg Stumbo's top legislative priorities this year.
Under the bill, the scholarship recipients would, for the most part, attend four-year college campuses in coal counties. The hope is that they would pursue careers in the same region after graduation.
"These are the kids that create the jobs, ... the entrepreneurs," said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
The measure seeks to make permanent a pilot project started by Gov. Steve Beshear a couple of years ago.
Under that test project, nearly 100 scholarship recipients have already received bachelor's degrees, Stumbo said. He said the coalfield counties in eastern Kentucky lag behind other parts of the state in the percentage of residents with four-year college degrees.
Scholarships are funded with coal severance tax funds. Participating students must 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. They also would include coal-county satellite campuses of Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, Murray State and Western Kentucky universities.
Beshear put $2 million per year for the scholarship program into 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.
State Senate President Robert Stivers, who represents an eastern Kentucky district, said the biggest question is the ability to pay for the expanded program.
"Are we able to fund that program with what's left of our coal industry and the severance tax?" the Manchester Republican said.
The legislation is House Bill 2.