JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy is making the case for his budget-cutting plan directly to staff and students at the University of Alaska, and reinforcing the idea that he is flexible about the look of the university system, as long as that look is affordable.
In a letter sent Tuesday morning to all faculty, staff and students in the University of Alaska system, the governor implied that his proposal to cut the budget of the University of Alaska system is not as steep as opponents have said and that he is “agnostic” about the look of the university system after cuts.
“The legislature now has a balanced budget before them,” the governor wrote. “THEY now can decide priorities of the budget. My administration is agnostic on this. This administration’s primary concern is that the budget does not exceed revenues or use savings.”
Supporters of the university system blasted the governor’s letter. David Noon, a history professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, alluded on social media to a famous 1975 New York Daily News headline, describing the letter as “Governor to the University of Alaska: DROP DEAD.”
“I’m so furious,” he said in a follow-up message.
Dunleavy press secretary Matt Shuckerow said Tuesday afternoon that the letter is part of a “broader effort” by the governor to explain his budget to Alaskans.
A letter outlining possible cost increases at Alaska Pioneer Homes was sent to residents earlier this month. State commissioners sent letters to their employees when the governor released his budget proposal last month.
Dunleavy has proposed broad cuts to state spending in an effort to pay a larger Permanent Fund dividend without new taxes or spending from the Constitutional Budget Reserve. The governor contends that because the formula for the dividend is set in statute, the state is obligated to fully fund that formula. The Alaska Supreme Court has disagreed, saying the dividend is subject to the annual legislative appropriations process.
Among the governor’s proposed cuts is one reducing state support of the university by $134 million, from $327 million to $193.1 million, a drop of 41 percent. In his letter, the governor says that looking only at cuts to state support presents an incomplete picture because the university system also receives significant federal aid and other funding. If that money is included, the governor’s budget cut is 17 percent of the overall university budget.
UA President Jim Johnsen told the Senate Finance Committee last month that the “17 percent” figure is inappropriate because reducing state support will also result in a loss of federal funds and tuition dollars as students and faculty leave. He predicted that if the governor’s cuts are fully enacted, the total loss could reach half the university’s budget.
Shuckerow said the governor does not want to cut the university budget, but it is necessary given the state’s deficit.
“These are not decisions that the governor takes lightly. This is a process that’s hoping to address a $1.6 billion deficit, and Alaskans need to understand where he’s coming from,” Shuckerow said.
Roberta Graham, a University of Alaska vice president and spokeswoman for the university system, said by email that “as far as I know, and anyone currently at the university can recall, the (letter) from the governor is without precedence.”
According to her account of events, the governor’s office asked the university — which operates somewhat independently from the rest of state government — to distribute the letter last week or provide a mailing list for the governor’s office to distribute it to faculty and staff.
Graham said university officials consulted their attorneys and responded that they couldn’t provide a mailing list because of privacy considerations but would be willing to send it out.
“At that point, no one at the university knew what the letter would say nor did we have any input,” Graham said.
The letter arrived Monday with a request that it also be distributed to students.
“The legal team did some additional vetting and didn’t find anything that would preclude facilitating the governor’s additional request,” Graham said.