Some state lawmakers on Friday signaled their opposition to the nomination of the leader of a conservative advocacy organization to serve on the University of Alaska Board of Regents.
Bethany Marcum is the executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, which advocates for limiting government and reducing state spending, including on education.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy nominated Marcum for the board earlier this year. Her appointment is subject to confirmation by the entire Legislature, which will vote on the governor’s nominations later this year.
The House and Senate Education committees held hearings Friday to consider Marcum’s nomination, during which some lawmakers questioned whether Marcum was an appropriate choice for the board that oversees the state’s public universities. They cited the Policy Forum’s backing for proposed budget cuts made by Dunleavy in 2019, which at the time included a 40% cut to state funding for the university system.
“To me, the Policy Forum has been very negative towards our education system,” said Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau.
Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, said she would “give a higher level of scrutiny” to Marcum’s nomination.
Lawmakers also raised concerns over Marcum’s actions on the state redistricting board. Citing an illegal gerrymandering attempt, a judge last year overturned a map redrawing East Anchorage districts. The judge ruled that the Republican appointees to the board, including Marcum, had “some sort of coalition” and that there was “ample evidence of secretive process at play.”
When asked, Marcum called her experience on the redistricting board “a very challenging time,” but denied violating rules governing open meetings or attempting to draw maps that would favor Republican candidates.
Himschoot said Marcum’s actions on the redistricting board “point to perhaps a lack of understanding or lack of respect for the open meetings act.”
Marcum, who was appointed to the redistricting board by Dunleavy, has resigned that post to take the Board of Regents seat.
Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, said Marcum’s proposal during the redistricting process indicates that geographic representation and fair votes “doesn’t seem to be something” that Marcum prioritizes.
“I am concerned about the current slate of the Board of Regents that are being put up for confirmation as they are not from a diverse swath of Alaska. We don’t see anyone coming from Western Alaska,” said Tobin. “I’m just very concerned as it seems to be the Board of Regents are really concentrated on a particular view and voice.”
Dunleavy’s other nominees to the Board of Regents include Dennis Michel, a businessman from Fairbanks; Joey Crum, chief executive of a vocational training company outside Palmer; and Paula Harrison, a human resources manager from Anchorage. All of the nominees are registered Republicans and longtime donors to Republican political candidates, including Dunleavy. None of the other nominees received the same level of questioning as Marcum did.
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Responding to criticism of her support for Dunleavy’s proposed budget cuts in 2019, Marcum said it was “incorrect” that she championed the governor’s cuts to the university system. After Dunleavy faced backlash for his proposal, Marcum was among those who publicly defended his plan to massively reduce state spending. But Marcum said support for cutting state spending was not directed specifically at the university.
“We have an approach at the Alaska Policy Forum where we look at the sustainability of the budget,” Marcum told the House Education Committee. “But we also have a policy internally within our organization that we are not policymakers, we are not the ones who get involved in the political process for deciding where cuts should be made.”
Questions from lawmakers were echoed by several members of the public, who asked the legislators during public testimony not to confirm Marcum. Some of them wondered if Marcum would have a conflict of interest given her leadership of the Policy Forum, which does not disclose its financial backers.
“Her job is to advocate, and it may be for positions that are contrary to the positions of the Board of Regents,” said Joelle Hall, president of Alaska’s AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor organization. “It is unreasonable to think that Ms. Marcum can act autonomously, just like I answer to tens of thousands of union members.”
Marcum said the Board of Regents’ legal advisers had said she could serve on the board while retaining her current position with the Policy Forum.
The Alaska Policy Forum is one of a network of self-described free-market think tanks spread across the country that advocate for reducing state spending, increasing school choice and reining in labor unions. Marcum said Friday that the organization is nonpartisan and sometimes supports legislation sponsored by Democrats. But it is often relied upon by conservative Republicans in Alaska’s legislature, including this year by lawmakers opposing increases to public K-12 education funding and legislators seeking to advance a tighter cap on state spending.
So far this year, the Alaska Policy Forum has made presentations to the House Judiciary Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Education Committee, all at the invitation of Republican lawmakers.
Story, the Juneau Democrat, questioned Marcum on Friday about the Policy Forum’s reports on Alaska’s spending on K-12 schools that conflict with studies done by University of Alaska Anchorage researchers at the Institute of Social and Economic Research.
Analysts affiliated with the forum have repeatedly claimed that Alaska spends far above average on public education, and that a large chunk of that money is spent on administrators. ISER studies have shown that when adjusted for cost of living, Alaska spends below average.
“I don’t see the Policy Forum taking that perspective as something that is accurate,” said Story. “As a Board of Regents, you need to trust in your university and use some of those data sources.”
Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, came to Marcum’s defense, saying she was “extraordinarily qualified” for the board.
“Diversity is a word that’s thrown around a lot these days. But it seems to me that it’s only acceptable to be diverse if you agree with the establishment’s options,” said McKay.
Mike Coons, president of an organization called Concerned Conservatives of Alaska, testified in support of Marcum’s nomination, reasoning that Dunleavy’s proposed 2019 cuts to the university system were beneficial.
“There’s a lot of good things that came out of that. Sometimes, putting the hammer over the heads gets results,” said Coons.
Alex Jorgensen, a current graduate student at UAA’s public policy master’s program, said he was in “complete shock” when Dunleavy proposed $130 million in cuts to the university system in 2019, but he found the Policy Forum’s support for the budget reductions “even more disappointing.”
“Personally, I can’t square the fiduciary responsibility of being a regent and supporting the university with her past decisions in supporting the budget cuts that would have dismantled the same university she’s trying to be a regent on,” said Jorgensen.
Marcum answered lawmakers’ questions during nearly two hours of hearings Friday, persistently rejecting their suggestions that her support for budget cuts, thrown-out redistricting map and ongoing legislative advocacy work could be construed as grounds to reject her nomination.
“I don’t have anything to hide. I don’t have a special agenda. While I am a conservative, I fully realize that as a member of the Board of Regents, my obligation is to the university,” said Marcum.