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Legislature proposes deep cut for University of Alaska budget

The Legislature's conference committee on the state budget has proposed a $50 million cut to the University of Alaska's budget in a Thursday evening vote.

Of the three possible budget revisions UA President Jim Johnsen presented last week, this cut was the worst-case scenario.

The loss of $50 million in its next budget could translate to the loss of 400 to 500 jobs across the university system and a 15 percent midyear tuition hike next school year, on top of a 5 percent increase already approved for the fall semester, according to Johnsen's earlier presentation. Johnsen also proposed eliminating 34 full-time senior leadership jobs and potentially eliminating some athletic programs at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"My concern is that we're going to build a university that people don't want to go to and we're going to lose a lot of talent," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, at the Thursday hearing.

The proposed UA budget cut that stuck in the conference committee was the deeper reduction passed by the state House. The House had passed a budget with $300 million for UA — less than the $325 million in the Senate's budget and the $335 million in Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget.

Thursday's proposal isn't final, however, and will likely be subject to bargaining as lawmakers try to negotiate a compromise budget in the final days of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end Sunday. Democratic legislators have said they will make the UA budget one of their priorities in budget negotiations.

The $300 million proposed UA budget passed 5-1 Thursday. Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, Sen. Anna McKinnon, R-Eagle River, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, and Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, voted yes. Gara voted no.

Kelly said Thursday with the Legislature still in session, there are still "a lot of pieces in play." However, he said, difficult decisions had to be made. One of them: UA's budget.

"Obviously the university is pretty important to me and my community. I have a lot of history with it, but it's where we are right now," said Kelly, who once worked as the university system's lobbyist in Juneau. "I wish it wasn't this way — but holy cow, until oil prices calm down, we're going to be in tough times."

Johnsen said last week the impacts of any budget cut would feel greater across the system. Not only could UA receive $50 million less in its next budget, it will also have to find money to cover an increase in fixed costs for budget items including salaries and health insurance costs.

In November, the UA Board of Regents passed a budget for next fiscal year, that starts July 1, and included about $377 million from the state. Under Thursday's proposal, the university will have to cut $77 million from that budget.

Roberta Graham, UA associate vice president of public affairs and federal relations, said Thursday that in the coming weeks Johnsen will meet with chancellors and other officials across the system to revise its budget.

"It's tough," she said.

Johnsen was on a flight to Washington, D.C., Thursday evening and could not be reached for comment.

The regents are scheduled to pass the revised budget at their two-day meeting which starts June 2.

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