No longer rich on oil, Alaska may ax money to universities. Lawmakers are 800 miles apart
Alaska's higher education system could see layoffs and programs cuts, thanks to a dramatic slash in money it gets from the state. USA TODAY
The University of Alaska could lay off more than 1,000 and cut dozens of programs, thanks to a dramatic slash in money it gets from the state – a 41% cut from a line-item veto by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
University officials say the $130 million cut could prove disastrous for Alaska’s future, endangering local economies, school employees and rural programs for Alaska Native students. They have pleaded with the Legislature to override the veto but say they have little hope that will happen.
Higher education observers have been watching the fight in Alaska closely. To some, the budget cuts represent an attack on the value of college.
On June 28, Dunleavy, a Republican, vetoed more than $400 million in items in Alaska’s budget, seeking to balance it. A third of the cuts came from higher education spending.
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The Alaska Legislature met on Wednesday to vote on whether to override Dunleavy’s line-item vetoes. Only 38 lawmakers convened in Juneau, the state capital, not enough to reach the necessary 45 votes to stop the cuts. The Legislature has until Friday to take action and avert the cuts.
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But the remaining 22 legislators support the governor, making the override unlikely. On Wednesday, they were meeting in a middle school in Wasilla, some 800 miles from the capital, for a special legislative session called by Dunleavy.
The groups are at odds over how to deal with Alaska's money troubles. Alaskan oil production and worldwide oil prices have declined in recent years, so the state has used billions in savings to balance its budget. But it's running out of money, and Dunleavy wants to send Alaskans $3,000 dividend checks from oil tax revenues.
"Everyone can clearly see that the state of Alaska can no longer afford to continue down the path of oversized spending, outsized government, and out-of-line priorities," Dunleavy said in a June 28 speech. "These are difficult times that require difficult decisions."
At the University of Alaska’s Anchorage branch, Chancellor Cathy Sandeen predicts around 700 layoffs and 40 programs eliminated if the Legislature fails to override Dunleavy’s veto. UAA employs 1,562 people and has 162 degree and certificate programs.
Higher education activists have warned the cuts could send Alaska's brightest students out of state for college. UAA would try to keep programs tied with in-demand jobs, such as health care, business, engineering and aviation, Sandeen said.
"It’s clear that the voters and our elected officials want the university system to be smaller," she said. "That’s our job if we don't receive the override, is to figure out how do we maintain highest-quality, best level of access for our students within a smaller footprint."
Protesters in Wasilla on Wednesday were fighting against that notion. At the middle school where Dunleavy's allies met, a group of protesters disrupted the session, sitting in lawmakers' assigned seats and breaking out in chants of “Don’t hide, override.”
One of the protesters was Kengo Nagaoka, a political activist organizing young Alaskans across the state to press lawmakers to override the budget veto. Born in Fairbanks to parents who immigrated from Japan, Nagaoka said his family stayed in Alaska because of the strong public school and university system. Now, he said, that strength is in jeopardy.
“The governor keeps talking about how we need to make Alaska friendly to business and we need to grow our economy,” Nagaoka said. “That will not happen if we cut our university by almost half of the state funding.”
At the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Chancellor Dan White said the cuts would reach far beyond the classroom. While White said the campus's leading Arctic research program would suffer, the biggest impacts could be to the role UAF plays in the local community.
Of the hundreds of millions of dollars the university spends each year, “most of that goes into the local community, in the form of salaries, property taxes, and contracts to businesses,” White said. “Not only do people value education for their kids and for themselves, they value the university for their business and the economy of the region.”
Fairbanks is Alaska's third-largest city, yet its fairly isolated location is valuable for contact with rural Alaska Native populations.
Evon Peter manages all six of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ community campuses, satellite schools in some of the most remote areas of the vast state that serve a large number of Alaska Native students – and two-thirds of the state’s geography.
“These cuts will disproportionately impact Alaska Native and rural students and people from low-income and first-generation college students,” Peter said. The college may have to cut programs and services for students and even close some of its remote campuses.
“We have a lot to lose if the Legislature doesn't override the governor’s vetoes,” Peter said.
At the Fairbanks campus, White said he expects “significant reductions” to programs and a drop in student enrollment, but maintained the university would work with existing students to attain their degrees.
The Alaska university system has already sustained budget cuts as the state's economy has changed. Despite lobbying for an override of the latest cuts, University of Alaska officials are prepared for the worst.
"While we are still hoping and optimistic of the override to the governor's vetoes, there is a strong possibility that that won’t happen," Sandeen said. "We’ll do our best to mitigate, and it’s still a great place. We’ll be pruning limbs to keep the others strong."
"In reality, it is difficult to stay positive as we wait to see what the Legislature will do," said Robbie Graham, a spokeswoman for the university system. "With fall semester starting in about four weeks, students need to know what the university will look like going forward."