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'Pick a Number, Any Number' is no way to set the University of Alaska budget

  • Author: Dermot Cole
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published February 25, 2016

We're starting to get a few hints about what some legislators mean with the empty euphemism "right-size government," at least for the University of Alaska — make up the numbers as you go along and provide free ammo.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Mat-Su, says as soon as the Legislature allows those who succeed in reaching the age of 21 to carry concealed weapons, the university can save money by recruiting volunteer armed security officers.

"And they'd probably come at very low cost, particularly if you supplied the ammunition for them to practice with," Huggins told the Senate committee that is supposed to deal with education.

For its part, the House Finance UA Subcommittee, led by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, found the right size for the university budget by playing "Pick a Number, Any Number."

The House has halted work on bills that do not deal with money matters, but the slipshod approach displayed by this subcommittee doesn't inspire confidence that real analysis has taken place on the right size of the university or how to pay for it.

Last week Wilson said it was not a core mission of the university to fund research and public service programs, which would have ended matching funding for hundreds of millions in grants. She backtracked Wednesday and favored a $51 million budget cut instead of a $63 million budget cut. She said the UA Board of Regents should decide how much to cut from instruction, research and public service.

That way the regents, and not legislators, would be blamed for the hundreds of job cuts and the program closures that would stem from the reduction, if approved by the full Legislature.

The majority members on Wilson's subcommittee — Reps. Paul Seaton, Neal Foster, Jim Colver and Liz Vazquez — endorsed a $300 million general fund budget, offering no explanation, other than saying the current budget of $351 million is too damned high. Gov. Bill Walker has proposed cutting the general fund budget to $335 million. A year ago it was $375 million.

Those numbers do not take the impact of inflation and other fixed cost increases into account, two factors that amplify the impact of any cut and expand the potential loss of jobs and closure of programs.

Wilson and Vazquez offered inaccurate percentages about the proposed subcommittee decrease — variously claiming it was a cut of 7.2 percent, 4.4 percent, 5.3 percent and 3.8 percent. Wilson read off a series of numbers from a budget chart with different categories of funds, skipping the number about the size of the general fund decrease — the vital statistic.

Anchorage Rep. Andy Josephson was correct in describing the reduction from $351 million to $300 million as "simple math," a reduction of about 14.5 percent.

Vazquez complained that the university and its supporters are complaining too much.

She alleged the university had failed to promptly provide full details on its federal grants until Wednesday, saying the information should have been available simply by "pushing a 'send' button on the computer." She complained the university either didn't know the information or was reluctant to share and the school had acted in "bad faith."

She was wrong to claim bad faith, as a full rundown of more than 2,000 federal grants was available Tuesday. Far from showing any signs of hesitancy, the university counts success in winning federal grants as a strong point and never misses a chance to brag about it.

Last week it appeared $288 million would be the starting point for negotiations on the UA budget. Now it is $300 million.

What was missing from the subcommittee meetings was any recognition that there are options to pay for programs the state needs, including taxes and the use of Permanent Fund earnings. We can't cut the UA budget by 14.7 percent and blame it all on Saudi Arabia, as this group did.

Legislators like to say "everything is on the table" as much as "right-size government." Everything is not on the table and will not be until alternative financing plans that balance the need for programs and the economic consequences are included.

Dermot Cole is a Fairbanks-based columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News and a 1979 graduate of the University of Alaska. 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)

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