By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Northern Kentucky University is expecting to take a $4 million funding hit in the state's two-year budget that Gov. Ernie Fletcher is scheduled to deliver tonight.
But state lawmakers and NKU officials now hope that at least some money for the $42 million special events center will be included in the tight budget to be presented by Fletcher.
"Sure, there is a chance," said House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, a member of the House budget committee. "The project is a high priority for Northern Kentucky as a region. NKU is the fastest growing university in the state, and it is deserving of such a facility when all the other universities have them."
"I'm not saying it is going to happen," said Callahan, whose district includes NKU's Highland Heights campus. "But myself and a lot of others think it should happen."
Fletcher has said the budget he will unveil at 7 p.m. to a joint session of the Kentucky General Assembly and a statewide public television audience will not be "painless."
The governor has a $200 million to $700 million hole to plug in the budget, and universities have already been told to expect less money from the state this year. In NKU's case the cut is about $4 million. Yet, in recent days, Fletcher has dropped hints that somehow, most likely through borrowing, money will be available for campus construction projects at state-run universities.
"We don't have many bucks," Fletcher said last week during a speech in Lexington, "but we do have some bricks."
"The governor has been very positive with what he has said about Northern Kentucky and NKU," said Rep. Jon Draud, R-Crestview Hills. "It looks to me like we might get an arena this time."
Fletcher's press office refused Monday to release any details about the budget.
But his budget director, Brad Cowgill, met with Callahan, NKU President James Votruba and other Northern Kentucky lawmakers last week in Frankfort.
In an e-mail sent late last week to other NKU officials and staff, Votruba wrote he has talked to Fletcher and his staff "regarding NKU's funding and space needs."
"(Fletcher) and his staff understand the problem and he has indicated his intent to address it," Votruba wrote. "The governor's options will be limited during this (legislative) session. However, I am led to believe that, when resources are available, he will look for ways to improve both our funding and our facilities."
Votruba said Northern Kentucky's lawmakers and the region's business community have lobbied Fletcher's administration on NKU's behalf.
Still, Callahan described Monday's mood in Frankfort as "anxious" as lawmakers, state workers, lobbyists, local officials and others await Fletcher's budget address.
"People from all over the state are wondering if their programs, operations and agencies will continue to be funded, or will they be cut," he said. "I'm surprised more information hasn't trickled out. But this administration keeps things pretty close to the vest."
Callahan also cautioned that Fletcher's budget must still be approved by the House and Senate, where funding is often added or stripped as lawmakers tear into the spending plan.
"The budget address is just the start of this process," he said. "There will still be a long way to go."
On the air
Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher's budget address will be broadcast live tonight from the state Capitol in Frankfort at 7 p.m. on KET public television, channel 54 on network television and channel 2 on Northern Kentucky's Insight Cable.
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