Student advocates prepare to descend on Juneau

Come celebrate 30 years!

Every January, as 20 senators and 40
House Representatives return to session in
Juneau, approximately 20 college students
are right at their heels.
Colleges and universities around the
state send several student members every
year to meet with legislators and lobbyists
to voice their concerns about various
issues.
For the 2009 legislative session,
approximately 10 UAA students will be
selected to travel to Juneau for a week
as a member of the USUAA Legislative
Advocacy Team.
“We’ll sit down and fi gure out what
their priorities are,” Senator Hollis French
(D-Anchorage) said. “And then we’ll talk
a little more strategically about how you
can go about trying to convince some folks
that can be a little resistant to those ideas to
come along.”
French said he has met with college
student advocates since he became a
senator in 2002.
“There are varying degrees of
sophistication [among the student
advocates], but most of them are really
good. I mean, you sort of self-select for
those sorts of positions,” French said.
“They’ve gotten to where they are because
they’re the sort of folks that are dynamic or
are full of ideas, or have a little more drive
than others.”
UAA students driven to participate
in the Legislative Advocacy Team had to
apply by Nov. 21. A selection committee
comprised of the USUAA Government
Relations Director Peter Finn, one student
not applying for the team, and a faculty or
staff member screened the applications and
then interviewed selected applicants. The
chosen team members will be announced
Dec. 19.
Universities hire lobbyists to make their
cases heard, but student advocates are just
as valid.
“You need both,” French said. “But
I always stress that a personal visit is
extremely important. It’s a very, very
important function to send real human
beings down there to speak to legislators
and tell them what it is that you need.”
USUAA Senator Zach Liszka was a
student advocate for the last legislative
session, and is hoping to return next
spring.
“They listen to us,” Liszka said. “If we
hired a lobbyist, they wouldn’t hear what
our needs are.”
Liszka said his overall experience was
great. The fi rst couple of days he spent in
meetings with representatives and senators
and then spoke before the House Finance
Committee on a merits-based bill he was
trying to push.
“I was pushing for UAA to change
from a commuter to a community campus
with this bill,” Liszka said. “Basically,
if you’re an A student, but don’t have the
money to go to school, this bill could get
you a scholarship to go to school for free.
It would give students an incentive to go
to school here instead of transferring out
of state.”
Liszka said the HB 384 Merit Scholarship
Task Force went relatively far, but failed in
the end. He said he is hoping to get to push
it again next session.
Senator Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage)
who sits on the Legislative Educating
Funding Task Force, sponsored HB 384
last year.
“That’s a bill I’ll be supportive of again
this year,” Ellis said. “We made some
improvements in student aid, but we’re
still one of the worst states in the country.
We don’t have a lot of needs-based student
aid.”
Ellis, a UAA graduate, said he has met
with student advocates every year since he
was elected to the Senate in 1986.
“I was a student senator in 1979 and
went to Juneau. Nobody would meet with
me about funds for a better library at UAA,”
Ellis said. “So I resolved that if I ever got
elected, I would meet with the students.”
Students from all over the state go to
Juneau to have their university’s needs
heard, and sometimes rival schools, like
UAA and UAF, fi nd themselves competing
for the fl oor.
This year, UA’s proposed capital budget,
if approved by Gov. Sarah Palin on Dec.
15, will go to the legislature. In the budget
are both a $65 million proposal for a new
sports facility at UAA and an $82 million
proposal for a new Life Sciences building
at UAF.
“That’s a good example of Anchorage
and Fairbanks coming together to share
resources,” Ellis said. “Whenever there is
an Anchorage versus Fairbanks battle, the
university tends to lose. But if we all stick
together, we all do better.”
With the economy facing numerous
hurdles and the price of oil rapidly dropping,
schools are going to have to work harder to
make their cases heard this year. It may be
the personalized voices of the students, and
not lobbyists, that will guarantee any kind
of win on the fl oor.
Zach Liszka said it is important for the
students that go to have a strong personal
story of their scholastic experience.
“For legislators to hear your personal
experience of going to school and how they
can help to improve the experience for the
student,” Liszka said. “That’s what they
want to hear.”