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Senate proposal would cut University of Alaska budget another 5 percent

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: March 14, 2017
  • Published March 13, 2017

JUNEAU — Alaska's Republican-led Senate majority proposed Monday to cut the state university system's unrestricted general fund budget by another 5 percent, or $16.3 million — an initial indication of how the reductions promised by Senate leadership will hit the state's biggest agencies as more budgets are unveiled.

The proposal came in a 15-minute budget subcommittee hearing at the Capitol, where the university's lobbyist, Miles Baker, warned that the cut, coming on top of a $45 million reduction in the past two years, would force "difficult decisions" for the system.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon addresses a state university official at a budget subcommittee meeting at the Capitol on Monday. The subcommittee proposed to reduce the university’s budget by 5 percent, or $16.3 million. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

The subcommittee's proposal isn't final; it must be approved by the full Senate, then will be subject to budget negotiations with the House, whose majority coalition has opposed cuts to public education.

"We're going to continue advocating for what we need while planning for what we might get," said Jim Johnsen, the university system's president.

The university's board of regents in November approved a spending plan with a 5 percent tuition increase that anticipated lawmakers granting the regents' initial budget request of $341 million — up from last year's $325 million.

Gov. Bill Walker instead proposed a status quo, $325 million university budget, and the House Finance Committee left it at the same level — a move that disappointed university officials who had hoped for more, Johnsen said.

The Senate's new proposal for the university instead is $309 million, much less than any of the other proposals.

Johnsen, in a phone interview, praised Senate leaders for being "crystal clear" early in the legislative session about how much they intended to cut the university system's budget. But he said the proposed reductions would force his administration to continue looking at employees' workloads, low-enrollment programs, administrative services, online learning and its buildings with an eye toward reductions.

He wouldn't provide details about which specific programs or services could be downsized.

Senators said the university could face further reductions next year without an improvement in the state's financial position, hurt by the recent slump in oil prices and declining production.

Senate leaders have said they're seeking $300 million in cuts to the state budget this year, and similar 5 percent reductions for other big agencies like education, health and transportation are expected later this week.

Another Senate subcommittee, chaired by Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy, on Monday proposed eliminating the state's $2 million-a-year pre-kindergarten grant program, though any reductions to the state's much larger per-student formula budget for schools will come later in the process.

The majority has pledged to cut another 4 percent from the state budget next year, and 3 percent the following year.

"There's another 4 percent on its way next year," Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, told university officials at the subcommittee hearing. "Pending changes in what we're facing, fiscally, I think that could either increase that number or keep it level at 4 percent."

The university's unrestricted budget doesn't include cash that comes from federal grants or university tuition, which brings its total spending plan to $870 million.

Senate subcommittee members said they wanted a robust university system but were also trying to reduce the state's deficit. Kodiak Republican Gary Stevens suggested that the cuts made by the Legislature over the past two years to close Alaska's deficit of nearly $3 billion haven't yet resonated across the state.

"I hate to see this happen, but I think the problem is the public is not aware of the horrible situation we are in," said Stevens, a retired state university professor.

University students are not suffering from a lack of awareness so much as "almost helplessness, at this point," said Samuel Erickson, the University of Alaska Anchorage's student body president.

Erickson said in a phone interview that the student government had been pushing for the regents' original request of $341 million, which he described as putting the university's budget on a downward "glide path" instead of "a crash and burn."

"It's really demoralizing to see your tuition bill keep rising and programs keep getting deleted and campus events keep going under," Erickson said. "It just feels like there's not much we can do."

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