Opinions

OPINION: Let’s go to bat for Alaska’s youth

University of Alaska, Board of Regents,

At the beginning of my legislative career, funding of programs like the Alaska Performance Scholarship, the Alaska Education Grant and the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho –- a western-states combined medical school) program was a given. My colleagues understood that, for Alaska businesses to have a pipeline of highly trained graduates, we needed to deliver merit and needs-based scholarships for young Alaskans looking to go to college. As one of the few states without an in-state medical school, legislators also appreciated the importance of WWAMI bolstering our medical workforce numbers by educating medical students in Alaska.

What changed? Unfortunately, these programs have become collateral damage in a dangerous game of political chicken.

The Higher Education Investment Fund -- the account that traditionally funds these programs -- was for the first time ever, declared subject to “the sweep” into the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR) by the Dunleavy administration. The CBR is a state savings account that was established in 1990 by a constitutional amendment and the Alaska Constitution requires that any money leftover in the general fund at the end of the fiscal year and available for use must be “swept” into it.

An obscure annual budget mechanism called “the reverse sweep” came about in response to this constitutional requirement. The annual solution became to refill these accounts, which requires a three-quarters vote in both bodies to restore the money from the CBR back into the various “swept” funds.

Impressively, the Higher Education Investment Fund earned interest of 27% in 2021 due to wise investments and robust stock market returns. The CBR, where funds are swept to, typically earns somewhere between 1% and 2%.

Providing proof to students that the funds will be there for them when needed is fundamental to the continued existence of these programs. If the fund is not recapitalized and if a system to protect those monies is not devised, students will learn the truth: that the funds are subject to the annual whims of legislators to support in each respective operating budget. Students are left unsure and ambivalent about legislative commitment to the programs. The result: They look around the country for better educational opportunities.

For years, the three-quarters reverse sweep was an afterthought. Legislators understood the importance of keeping these accounts full to fund essential programs like college and medical school scholarships. Then, politics intervened.

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It began in 2019, when a group of legislators refused to vote for the reverse sweep, holding critical programs hostage unless their demands on larger budget issues were met. The vote passed after strenuous negotiations, but the fight has become an annual one, with the margins of the reverse sweep’s passage becoming thinner each year. Then, in 2021, the reverse sweep vote failed altogether, resulting in the inability to access any scholarship funds from the typically reliable and self-sustaining Higher Education Investment Fund.

To stop this, I introduced House Bill 229, which would protect these scholarship programs by moving the Higher Education Investment Fund into the Alaska Student Loan Corporation, making it a true endowment, no longer subject to the sweep, and taking it off the negotiating table. Alaska’s youth shouldn’t have to worry that the scholarships and programs they depend upon to become our next generation of doctors, nurses, scientists and business leaders are arbitrarily on the chopping block each year because of a minority of legislators’ desire to leverage and threaten the funds for some unrelated prize.

Last year, both Democrats and Republicans paid tribute in the press to the importance of programs like WWAMI, especially as the pandemic highlighted the necessity of a vibrant medical workforce. I hope those words translate into action as the legislature is presented with the chance of protecting these vital scholarships and Alaska’s only medical doctorate program once and for all.

Andy Josephson was elected to the Alaska State House of Representatives in 2012 and represents residents in Midtown, the university area and East Anchorage.

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Andy Josephson

Andy Josephson was elected to the Alaska State House of Representatives in 2012 and represents residents in Midtown, the university area, and East Anchorage.

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