Higher education's political "hot potato," the proposal to make Utah Valley Community College a four-year school, has simmered at the Legislature's sidelines until now.

But with less than two weeks to adjournment, the Legislature will soon begin debating the merits of two UVCC bills, HB239 and HB322, both of which aim to let the community college offer limited four-year degrees.Rep. Byron L. Harward, R-Provo, had hoped to nudge his substitute HB239 from the House Rules Committee Wednesday. It didn't budge, but he said he believed he had enough votes to shake it loose sometime Thursday.

SB239 uses what Harward calls a "cooperative approach" with the state Board of Regents.

It amends state law, giving the regents permission to offer four-year degrees at UVCC and change its name.

"I'm willing to give them a year. The Board of Regents has exercised good faith up to this point," Harward said.

Harward's bill carries no fiscal note, instead relying on the higher education budget to include the $500,000 in start-up funds for the experiment to offer three four-year degrees.

In fact, Harward lobbied fellow lawmakers on HB239 Wednesday with a letter of support from Commissioner of Higher Education Wm. Rolfe Kerr. Kerr said he wrote the letter because HB239 appropriately leaves the name change and awarding of degrees with the regents.

The similar SB322, sponsored by Rep. John L. Valentine, R-Orem, also permits baccalaureate degrees at the Orem school. But it changes the school's name to Utah Valley College, separately provides $500,000 from the general fund to finance the baccalaureateprogram and sets July 1 as its effective date.

The key difference between the two bills is the funding mechanism.

Kerr said he is neutral on the funding source, a separate bill or in the regular budget, as long as there is "a clearly identifiable expansion of the higher education budget."

Valentine, who is the House co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, which shapes the Legislature's budget, said House Republicans, in a scheduled three-house caucus Thursday afternoon, were expected to discuss the budget, including higher education and the UVCC proposals.

After the caucus, if the appropriations subcommittees are told to readjust their budget recommendations, it may become apparent which bill will be pushed by Utah County legislators.

The Joint Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, agreeing with a recommendation by Kerr, set a $350 million base budget Tuesday with three additional building blocks totaling $8.4 million. The UVCC proposal is tacked onto a request of more enrollment money in the first, $4.2 million building block.

Valentine said he is "hopeful" that the UVCC proposal can be funded by either the budget with an additional building block or in a separate appropriation. His Executive Appropriations Committee co-chairman is Sen. LeRay McAllister, R-Orem, who has made no secret of his support for the UVCC experiment. Both Valentine and McAllister appeared before the regents in November urging approval of the four-year degree trial.

The higher education budget also couples the $500,000 funding for UVCC with $500,000 for the University Centers, the program in which the state's universities offer classes at the community colleges.

At a university center, a student can earn a baccalaureate degree in a limited number of disciplines while never leaving the community college campus. The university faculty either teach the classes in person or via the state's educational networks, EDNET or COMNET.

Valentine said the University Centers and UVCC proposal are bundled together in his mind for now. But he does have reservations about the University Centers.

Earlier, Weber State University threatened to pull its elementary education from the UVCC's University Center, he reported. "The other institution has control over what's being offered at the home institution."

However, Valentine said, because both the UVCC proposal and University Centers try to deliver services to students in a more cost-effective manner, he is willing to let both experiments be tried.

Funding the UVCC proposal at the expense of the University Centers would likely set off reverberations for four-year colleges in other communities, specifically Davis and Washington counties.

"There would be an automatic request that we go that way," said Dixie College President Douglas Alder.

Washington County residents also have legitimate reasons for baccalaureate programs, Alder said. The Utah Office of Planning and Budget projects it will be the state's third-fastest growing county in the 18- to 34-year-old population, the prime college years, in the next 17 years. Utah County will be the fourth in population increases in that category. (See chart.)

While Wasatch Front residents might argue that St. George residents could drive to Southern Utah University in Cedar City for baccalaureate classes, the distance is the same as it is for Provo residents to drive to the University of Utah, he said.

Dixie has had a University Center for two years, but the proposed legislative package will give program enhancement and academic support funds to Dixie as well as the other existing centers. It will also set up University Centers at Snow College, Salt Lake Community College and at the Davis Applied Technology Center.

What if the UVCC proposal stumbles on Capitol Hill? UVCC President Kerry Romesburg said he doesn't think Utah County residents would let that issue die, either. "There will be a lot of people so disappointed that they would find an alternative to getting it done. But I don't know what that alternative would be."

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(Chart)

Projections of growth

Projected increase in population of 18- to 34-year-olds, 1990 to 2010

Salt Lake County 63,004

Davis County 24,269

Washington County 14,884

Utah County 9,834

Weber County 7,782

State of Utah 151,409

Source: Utah Office of Planning and Budget