University budget amendment dies in Legislature

Some state senators’ attempts to add almost $5 million to the University of Alaska budget recently failed in multiple levels of the Alaska State Legislature. This leaves UA $3.6 million short of meeting its projections for fixed costs for the 2008-09 fiscal year, which starts in July.

Fixed costs are the minimum expenses – including utilities, fuel and maintenance costs – the UA system must pay to keep its campuses operating. In addition to this shortfall, UA will also not be able to fund several programs aimed at expanding high-demand areas of study initially included in the UA Board of Regents budget proposal. Many of these developments were to be at UAA, to advance popular programs like nursing and engineering.

“We’re very disappointed at this stage,” said Kate Ripley, director of statewide public affairs for UA. “It’s going to be difficult for us. We have to pay our fixed costs somehow, so that probably means reallocation, taking from somewhere else.”

Ripley said that although the total legislative allocation for UA is $4.3 million more than it was last year, the figure still falls short of climbing costs for things like utilities and building materials.

Sen. Gary Wilken of Fairbanks proposed an amendment to add this money to the UA budget on the Senate floor April 18, where it failed 15-5.

Prior to this, an almost identical amendment was proposed by Sen. Joe Thomas, also from Fairbanks, in the Senate Finance Committee. This proposal came one vote short of passing. Thomas said he proposed the amendment because UA needs the resources to provide necessary services, including future workers, to the state.

“I believe that stepping backward in education is not where we need to be going right now,” Thomas said. “Some see the university just as another department, and not as having any special needs.”

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Bert Stedman of Sitka, Charlie Huggins of Wasilla, Lyman Hoffman of Bethel and Donny Olson of Nome all voted against the amendment. No senator from Anchorage has a seat on the finance committee or on the University of Alaska Senate Finance Subcommittee.

Stedman’s chief of staff, Miles Baker, said Stedman did not support the amendment because the budget that came out of the UA subcommittee was thought to be sufficient. He also said the university’s complaint that this sum will not cover fixed costs is a matter of opinion.

“The university tends to look at fixed costs differently from the finance committee,” Baker said. “The committee thinks this amount is enough; the university doesn’t. That’s a difference of opinion.”

Baker said a legislator’s job is to make sure the state can afford all of the programs it needs to fund. Sometimes this means sacrificing a little.

“The budgets are too high. Everyone has to give up something,” Baker said. “There’s room in that budget to do what they need to do.”

Ripley said the university projects its fixed costs, along with other possible expenditures, based on carefully balanced equations of past expenses as well as accommodation for new growth and swelling maintenance costs.

Olson, who voted against the amendment in committee, said he felt there was a consensus coming out of subcommittee that the unamended budget of $287.2 million was enough. He also said it is sometimes frustrating for legislators that UA, unlike other state departments, is responsible for dividing up its own budget. The legislature gives the university a lump sum, which is allocated internally.

“There’s really no accountability in the board of regents,” Olson said.

Thomas said he thought the Legislature’s inability to dictate how university money is spent definitely leads to hesitation by some legislators when it comes to increasing funding for UA.

“Some people believe the university has too much autonomy to decide its own future,” Thomas said.

The operation of UA, including who controls the budget, is stipulated in the Alaska State Constitution and later bylaws.

Ripley said that UA has tried in recent years to diversify its funding sources so it does not rely as much on the Legislature. She said the efforts to do this have been largely successful, but the state is still responsible for supporting its only public institution for postsecondary learning.

Both Thomas and Olson said public testimony, which is offered during committee sessions, is very important in determining how well legislators understand a particular issue. They also said constituent input, in the form of letters, e-mails and phone calls, can be influential in the way a legislator votes.

Pete Kelly, director of UA state relations, said there may still be a way to get UA the necessary funding for the upcoming fiscal year, but the means of doing this through the Legislature have been exhausted.

“There’s no mechanism in the budget now to cover those costs,” Kelly said.

Ripley said the university may have other ways of obtaining the money, which will become clear as the legislative session ends and the start of the new fiscal year, July 1, approaches.

“When we’re being looked at as the ones to train and educate the future workforce, we need the resources to respond,” Ripley said.