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Alaska university system braces for ‘devastating’ budget cuts

The University of Alaska at Anchorage and other public universities in the state are facing stark budget cuts. (James R. Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

ANCHORAGE — University leaders in Alaska are scrambling to prepare for a 41 percent cut in state funding and mobilizing a last-ditch lobbying effort to try to persuade legislators to overturn the governor’s decision.

“Simply put, if not overridden, today’s veto will strike an institutional and reputational blow from which we may likely never recover,” University of Alaska System President James R. Johnsen said in a statement following a Board of Regents emergency meeting after Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) used a line-item veto Friday.

In a phone interview Monday, Johnsen called the unexpected blow a “bomb” and described the university system’s response to the impact on multiple fronts. Furlough notices would be distributed to all staff, Johnsen warned, and a freeze was placed on hiring, travel and new contracts.

Layoffs would be necessary, he said, and the system would declare financial exigency by July 15, to more rapidly shut down programs and academic units and to start what he called the unprecedented process of removing tenured faculty.

Johnsen issued a “call to action,” and faculty, students and staff began calling and emailing legislators to plead for an override vote. “Please raise your voice,” he said in a video message. “There is no strong state without a strong university.”

University officials had braced for stark reductions from the governor and were relieved when the state legislature proposed a $5 million cut. But after Dunleavy’s action, the university faced a $135 million cut in the fiscal year that began Monday.

“It certainly comes as a shock,” said Scott Downing, an associate professor of English and a Faculty Senate leader at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. “It’s going to be devastating. The effects on programs, on the students, on staff and faculty are just going to be — it’s kind of unthinkable.” Faculty leaders were meeting Monday to coordinate advocacy efforts, and students are organizing, as well, he said.

“That was something none of us expected,” said Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Alaska at Anchorage. Her institution alone is facing the likelihood of having to eliminate 700 jobs, including some tenured faculty members, she said.

“We’re looking at probably putting whole buildings into mothballs to reduce utility and maintenance expenses,” Sandeen said. And with the combined effects of eliminated programs and damage to the school’s reputation, it is estimating a loss of 3,000 students — a stark reduction in tuition revenue on top of the state cut.

The hundreds of millions of dollars in the 182 line-item vetoes announced Friday are the latest salvos from the governor’s office in a budget battle that stretches back months.

As a state senator, Dunleavy was a staunch conservative, even losing a prominent committee assignment after breaking with the Republican-majority caucus by voting against its budget in 2017. Though the proposal included steep reductions to state programs, Dunleavy said it did not go far enough in reducing the size of government.

In the 2018 governor’s race, Dunleavy campaigned on paying out a higher Permanent Fund Dividend, the annual checks sent to state residents based on growth, a fund created through the state’s oil wealth. The previous governor and legislature had dropped the dividend amount amid revenue shortfalls from low oil prices to help close massive budget gaps.

Dunleavy campaigned on a platform that the move amounted to theft from Alaskans of their “full PFD” and at points even proposed to pay back the diminished funds from the three previous years.

Disputes over whether Alaskans will get hefty dividend checks come October are a key obstacle in competing budget proposals. The Dunleavy administration insists that under a legal formula for calculating dividends, residents will get $3,000 checks this year. A proposal in June from the state Senate to drop that amount to $1,600 was dead on arrival.

“Let me be clear, this is a non-starter,” the governor’s office wrote of the proposal, saying that if it passed, he would veto it.

Alaska has no state income or sales tax, but the firmly Republican administration and its allies in the legislature have refused to entertain the possibility of balancing the budget through new revenue.

Instead, the administration has aggressively pursued steep budget cuts, many of which could fundamentally change residents’ experience of their state government on everything from public education to environmental regulation to the presence of police or courts.

Patrick M. Anderson, chief executive of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, described the pending cuts as “devastating for low-income and vulnerable Alaskans statewide, particularly rural Alaska Natives.” The private nonprofit organization provides housing and other services to residents across the state.

Some are hoping the cuts will be blocked by legislators, but under the state’s constitution, it would take three-quarters of the legislature’s 60 representatives to override the governor’s action.

Given the large number of Republicans in both chambers, many of whom are sympathetic to much of Dunleavy’s agenda, it is far from certain there are enough votes to overturn the governor’s proposals.

If the vetos hold, state funding to the universities will have been cut more than 50 percent since 2014, Johnsen said.

He said the university system has been criticized by some politicians for offering too many programs for a small population and for having excessive operating costs. He defended costs given the geographic size of the state and its challenges; half of its campuses, for example, are not accessible by land.

“Students are concerned,” Johnsen said. “The timing couldn’t be worse, in terms of persuading students not to come."

Heather Batchelder, an associate professor of education at the University of Alaska Southeast who is teaching summer school, said she has been trying to be strong for her students and reassure them that they will still be admitting new students and ensuring that people can complete their degrees. But she choked back tears while talking about the potential effect of the cuts on the schools and state. And some of the worry is personal: People were already concerned about their jobs before the cut was announced, she said.

Like Downing, she said the focus now is on lobbying legislators.

Alaska’s governor wants to give more cash to residents — and cut public services

“The way that I feel about Alaska — we’re the biggest small town there is,” Batchelder said. “There’s a lot you can do with grass-roots activism. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Svrluga reported from Washington.