One thing we could always count on in Fairbanks was that every local legislator, regardless of party affiliation, would support the University of Alaska. Not anymore.
Rep. Tammie Wilson, whose North Pole district doesn't extend to the Fairbanks campus, has proposed budget cuts that could mean the loss of 600 to 1,000 direct university jobs across the state and hundreds of indirect job losses.
Wilson, apparently unaware of what goes on at the university, said research is not a core mission and doesn't require state support.
In fact, tens of millions in state funds spent on university research are used to attract hundreds of millions in federal research grants. This is one of the cornerstones of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a vital element in attracting students and faculty. It is inseparable from instruction, especially for graduate students who work directly with faculty members on many projects.
Wilson is in a position of authority, placed by the House Republican majority as the chairwoman of the finance subcommittee, responsible for reviewing the university budget before it goes to the full finance committee.
Using a set of numbers as random as any uttered in a bingo hall, she said she only wants to spend state money to "offset tuition," so she supports a $63 million cut in general funds for the university, with no money for research, sports, etc.
"If they want to do research or they want to do the other, they can go find other funding," said Wilson.
While others on the finance committee will tone down her proposal and it will not emerge in this fashion, the real danger here is that the starting point for legislative negotiations about supporting research and other key programs should be where it is today.
Start where Wilson does, at zero, and an extreme cut will be promoted as a reasonable compromise, when it is not.
A 2012 study said that for every dollar the state spends on UA research, the university generated $5.60 in additional research income, most of that from institutions that have a choice about where they direct grants. That money would evaporate under Wilson's plan.
I find it discouraging that this is the level of debate in Juneau on the eve of the Arctic Summit Science Week, an international gathering starting March 12 in Fairbanks, at which organizations from around the world will meet to discuss the future. Fairbanks is the meeting site because of the strength of its research programs.
To back up her idea, Wilson compared UA funding to that of the Anchorage School District, pretending the two are comparable, and concluded that the university is wasting tens of millions of dollars.
She invented a "base student allocation" for the university, using a grab bag of statistics to justify reducing the UA general fund budget from $351 million to $288 million for the fiscal year that begins in July. But when challenged by Rep. Andy Josephson, who said the term used to describe K-12 education funding in her presentation was inaccurate, she said someone else prepared the slides and made that mistake.
She said her $288 million proposal originated with a UA budget document in which a line listed that as the amount needed for "student instruction."
"I'm not arguing that figure; I'm saying that's what they've given us this year for student instruction," said Wilson.
Two skeptics on the subcommittee, Rep. Adam Wool of Fairbanks and Josephson, both Democrats, repeatedly questioned her calculations and conclusions, pointing out she had missed the other costs of running the institution. Josephson said if the subcommittee follows her lead, it will be an outrage.
"Obviously they do get a lot of funding from other areas for research," Wool said.
"I didn't say they didn't," said Wilson.
"I know you didn't, but obviously research is an integral part of the university as far as developing an international reputation and attracting talented faculty and attracting students," he said.
Wilson said she "absolutely" agreed. But she didn't change her position that the state should not fund research, so she doesn't absolutely agree.
At the UA Board of Regents meeting Friday, UA President Jim Johnsen said the school is already making contingency plans for a reduction of 450 to 500 jobs, which would be needed if the final legislative budget cut is 50 percent more than that proposed by Gov. Bill Walker. The governor has proposed cutting the general fund budget by $16 million, from $351 million to $335 million, down from $375 million two years ago.
No one has run the job loss numbers on Wilson's idea of a cut to $288 million, but an early estimate by UA officials put the potential direct job loss number at 600 to 1,000. That does not include indirect job losses from reduced research grants, which support much of the UAF research infrastructure.
The university is a complicated institution that affects tens of thousands of Alaskans every day. We need legislators to treat its budget and that of all state agencies with care, not carelessness.
I'm afraid Wilson is not alone and that she will be joined by many other legislators vying to one-up each other in the cut-the-budget sweepstakes, blindly offering cuts with no clear analysis, logic or explanation.
Columnist Dermot Cole, the author of six history books, lives in Fairbanks and is a 1979 graduate of UAF. The views expressed here are his and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.