Sunday, February 1, 2004

Legislators spar over arena

Want money for NKU spent elsewhere

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Northern Kentucky state lawmakers are girding for what looks to be a fight over funding for Northern Kentucky University's proposed special events arena.

Statehouse Democrats from Louisville are questioning and opposing Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher's plan to use $42 million in borrowed state funds to build the arena at NKU's Highland Heights campus.

But state Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Crescent Springs, said he and the region's other lawmakers - including the Senate's four Northern Kentucky members - are going to protect the project.

"It's not a real surprise for me that (the Democrats) might try to do this," Westwood said. "I understand that they have to advocate for their area, but we're advocating for ours. Every project Gov. Fletcher put in the budget has an economic impact for different areas of the state ... and I challenge anybody to look at NKU's numbers and tell me they have been treated fairly."

The Democrats are apparently miffed that Fletcher hasn't proposed spending more money on a project at the University of Louisville. And they're hinting that Northern Kentucky is receiving preferential treatment because it is a GOP bastion that gave Fletcher a huge margin in November's gubernatorial election.

"There seems to be some inequity," House President Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville, told Budget Director Brad Cowgill during a House budget committee meeting last week.

"I hate to say, but regional politics come into play," Clark said.

Fletcher has proposed spending $19 million in state bond money for a cancer research building at the University of Louisville.

In a Senate floor speech last week Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, said $98 million is needed for the lab and that NKU's project is little more than a "basketball arena" that will not spur economic growth.

"If we're willing to say that basketball is going to be the activity that is driving the economy of the state," Shaughnessy said, "let's take that money and let's put it in downtown Louisville and build an arena for the greatest coach in NCAA men's basketball, (University of Louisville coach) Rick Pitino."

House Democrats from other regions, including budget committee chairman Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, have likewise criticized Fletcher's spending plan.

But NKU President James Votruba said the special events center would have a $4 million-a-year economic impact on the region because the center will host a variety of events, not just NKU basketball games.

It also will help attract new students and improve campus life at NKU, he said.

State Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, said Northern Kentucky's lawmakers have received a commitment from Senate Republican leadership - the GOP controls the Senate - that if any projects are included in the budget, the arena will be one of them.

"I'm disappointed in Sen. Shaughnessy's comments," Stine said. "We're trying to work with other parts of the state and not be so divisive ... but this really is a new day in Frankfort when other parts of the state are complaining about what was put in the budget by the governor for Northern Kentucky."

Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben, one of the regional leaders who have lobbied for years for the arena, said the region "makes no apologies for the importance of this project."

"Every other university in the state has a major facility like this, and it's been a long time coming," Toebben said. "We're so excited that the governor is showing leadership on this project."

The Associated Press contributed. E-mail

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