Senate subcommittee approves $5.5 million increase for UA budget

The Senate Finance University of Alaska Subcommittee approved a $5.5 million increase for UA funding on April 4.

The funding is $5.5 million more than Gov. Walker’s amended request of $317 million, but still less than the UA Board of Regents’ request for $341 million. The House Finance Committee’s budget version for UA was $336 million.

Sen. Berta Gardner, a member of the subcommittee, said that it’s not enough. Even a $10 million increase would only let the university “tread water.”

“The problem is that the university… at a $10 million increase, they can maintain the status quo,” Gardner said. “So that’s the increases in all their fixed costs that they really can’t do much about. They have to pay the utilities, they have to keep the buildings warm and the snow plowed.”

Gardner’s concerns involve boosting enrollment, investing in educators and continuing arctic research. The budget cuts that the University has faced “have been very damaging,” she said.

With a budget of the UA subcommittee’s $322 million for fiscal year 2019, the university’s budget will have fallen from $370 million in fiscal year 2015, which is a total decrease of over $48 million in 5 years. The funding decrease overall adds up to approximately a 13 percent reduction.

“I’m disappointed and worried about the university,” Gardner said.

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Photo credit: Mariah DeJesus-Remaklus

Associate Vice President of Government Relations, Miles Baker, said that while the increase is small and not the Board’s request, it’s encouraging.

“After four years of budget cuts, I think the fact that both the House and the Senate put money into our budget is an indication that there’s a pretty universal feeling that the university needs more money,” Baker said.

Joey Sweet, student regent for the Board of Regents, is optimistic about the legislature settling on an increase that is closer with the House’s number. Still, he hopes there won’t be much delay in finalizing the operating budget.

“My biggest concern is how long the process could take. Last year, we didn’t have a budget until right before the start of the new fiscal year, which generated a lot of uncertainty throughout UA,” Sweet wrote in an email. “However, I think this year, the forecast is better and we won’t end up seeing that kind of delay again.”

Sen. Bert Stedman, also on the UA subcommittee, was unsure of the proposed $5.5 million figure, but for a different reason.

During the April 4 meeting, he expressed concern about it being “too early” to start increasing the university’s budget. He said that he would have preferred a number that was closer to Walker’s to allow for more room while the House and Senate discussed the budget in a conference committee.

“We need to be careful what agencies we start increasing before we get our finances turned around,” Stedman said in the meeting.

Sen. Natasha von Imhof found the increase to be appropriate.

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“We felt that an additional $5.5 million was appropriate considering the total state budget that we have. Thinking about all 16 other agencies in addition to the university, including Health and Social Services and K12 education, we need to balance the needs of all agencies,” von Imhof said.

Ultimately, Stedman, along with von Imhof and Sen. Anna MacKinnon, voted in support of the increase. Gardner voted against it.

Baker said that there are a lot of fiscal challenges and issues being dealt with, such as the Permanent Fund and potential taxes, which worries him.

“My concern is that any effort to resolve all those big, thorny issues and get everyone out of town — that the university’s budget doesn’t get quite the attention that we’d like to see it get,” Baker said.

The Senate’s operating budget was voted on and presented on April 12. The budget will go to a conference committee, where both bodies of the legislature appoint conferees to work through any differences in their respective versions.

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