University of Alaska budget cut by $8 million in legislative compromise

University of Alaska's community campuses, such as University of Alaska Fairbanks' Bristol Bay Campus in Dillingham, Alaska, could face dramatic changes as the university faces further funding cuts from the state. (Creative Commons photo by J. Stephen Conn/Flickr)
The University of Alaska faces a softer blow than the nearly $22 million cut proposed by the state Senate. A Legislature conference committee on Wednesday cut the University’s budget $8 million. (Creative Commons photo by J. Stephen Conn/Flickr)

The state Legislature’s conference committee cut $8 million from the University of Alaska’s budget on Wednesday, a softer blow than the nearly $22 million reduction proposed by the state Senate.

The six-member committee approved the UA budget without discussion at the meeting early Wednesday evening. Under the approved UA operating budget, the university system will receive $317 million in state funding for 2017-18, down from the $325 million it got in the current fiscal year.

In an email to students and staff earlier this month, UA President Jim Johnsen said an $8 million cut would “severely impact” UA services and would result in the total reduction of $61 million, or 16 percent, over the past four years.

Johnsen is scheduled to discuss the impacts of the reduction with the UA Board of Regents on Thursday at a two-hour morning meeting. In a brief email to students and staff about the adopted $317 million budget Wednesday, he wrote, “While this isn’t the number we hoped for, given the state’s fiscal challenges and the real possibility of a much deeper cut I am relieved the Legislature has taken another step forward.”

Johnsen wrote that the UA budget meant there would “most likely” be an operating budget for the new fiscal year, which starts July 1. That would allow the UA system to avoid issuing furloughs to employees as it awaited a budget.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, sits on the legislative conference committee and said in an interview Wednesday that the Legislature planned to inject money into the capital budget later this year for UA’s “major maintenance projects,” to make up for the $8 million cut. “That is the goal,” Seaton said.

The largely Democratic Alaska House Majority, to which Seaton belongs, had advocated to give UA the same level of funding it received this year — $325 million.

Asked about how the House and the Senate arrived at the $8 million cut, both Seaton and conference committee member Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, called it “a compromise.”

“Obviously it was a compromise. It’s a number that the House and Senate agreed upon — that’s all,” said Hoffman, the sole Democrat in the Senate’s Republican-led majority.

The conference committee is charged with resolving the difference between the Alaska House and Senate budget proposals and it’s expected to take up public school funding on Thursday.

The Senate has proposed cutting public school spending by 5.7 percent, or $69 million, while the House has proposed keeping it at status quo.

Both Hoffman and Seaton declined to comment on school spending negotiations.

“I think we’ll be having that budget in the morning and so we should wait and get public adoption of the positions,” Seaton said. “I need to wait until it’s on the table at the conference committee.”

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story has been republished with permission from the Alaska Dispatch News.

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