FAIRBANKS—Fairbanks area legislators, both Democrat and Republican, are calling Gov. Mike Dunleavy's amended budget a cause for alarm.
Dunleavy released his budget Wednesday morning, outlining a plan to cut the University of Alaska by $155 million, health and social services by $365 million and K-12 education by nearly $325 million, among other cuts across state services and agencies.
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said he will not support the cuts to the university and K-12 education.
"It’s a nonstarter for me," Bishop said. "One of my school districts just left here. A very good performing district and I don’t know how we’re going to increase reading, graduation and all the other benchmarks if we’re cutting this much. To them, that would mean a loss of about 15 teachers.”
Bishop, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, criticized Dunleavy for wanting to repeal the Senior Benefits Program, which provides financial support to low-income Alaskans over the age of 65.
"And our seniors? God bless our seniors. We need to take care of those pioneers that came here to this state," he said. "I refuse to balance the budget on their backs."
Bishop objected to fully funding the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend amid massive budget cuts across the state.
"I have no problem paying a statutorily driven dividend if the company is making money, but when the company is deficit spending I don’t support paying the full dividend," he said. "I'm not going to balance the budget to pay a full dividend when we’re taking away money from the university and schools and seniors."
Democratic Rep. Grier Hopkins recalled going to school in the Fairbanks North Start Borough and noted that programs such as sports and orchestra enriched his childhood.
"If we're cutting this much from K-12, there won't be programs like that anymore," he said. "We see families and students and parents come out for budget testimonies at the local level over eliminating music and band and libraries, and you can see firsthand how those small impacts hurt our students.
"When you’re looking at eliminating nearly 20 percent of the base student allocation that helps fund these programs, that's going to hurt," he said.
Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, noted the magnitude of the proposed university cut in comparison to a similar situation in the 1980s.
"I’m thinking back to the 1980s when oil went to $8 a barrel and the state cut university funding and not even this much; it decimated the university. It took them 10 years to recover," he said. "And back then if you look at Texas, their oil dropped and they slashed budgets all over the state, but they didn't cut the university…. Now the best doctors in the U.S are the graduates out of the Texas university. Texas saw that their future was in the university system, and we’re going in the opposite direction and that's very concerning.”
The Department of Transportation stands to lose nearly $107 million with a 75 percent cut to the Marine Highway System.
Thompson noted Alaska's rural airports also stand to see a dramatic cut in funding and that such cuts to affect more than just transportation.
"The state owns 247 rural airports they maintain. The people out there, their health and safety is all involved in those airports," he said. "The ferry system, that’s the roads for Southeast for their medical needs. So we have to start looking at the real impacts across the board for these cuts."
Dunleavy and budget director Donna Arduin have told House members they will not discuss the budget with them until the House has reached a majority organization agreement, according to Thompson.
"The governor said he won’t come and talk to us until we’re organized. That's verbatim. He's refused," Thompson said. "So that kind of just leaves us out in the cold.”
Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks, called that tough love.
"Maybe he’s trying to nudge some type of compromise," he said. "You could probably point fingers across the aisle both directions for this situation."
LeBon called the budget "aggressive" but said the cuts to education were impractical.
"The cut to the university, that's just way too big. We need to be a little more realistic about funding education and cutting $150 million is not the way," he said. "The same goes for cutting K-12. It’s too much. Not practical. Not sustainable. Guts programs to the point of eliminating entire schools or programs.”
Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki criticized Dunleavy's approach to public safety, noting that education and mental health resources are key to diminishing crime. Public safety is the one area that Arduin said the state will be providing additional funding to.
"Governor Dunleavy continues to ignore the cause of over 90 percent of crime in Alaska," he said. "Solely locking people up and throwing away the key is not the fiscally prudent answer. Substance abuse treatment and mental health services, combined with a strong education system, are the key to rebuilding safe communities and saving the state money for the long-term."
Kawasaki said he fears for the future of the university.
"This kind of a cut would essentially shut down entire units and potentially reduce the number of campuses across the state," Kawasaki said. "In my mind they're really nonsensical cuts."
The University of Alaska headquarters and Fairbanks campus are in the district of Rep. Adam Wool, who called the cuts "devastating," "unacceptable" and "backwards."
"I don't know where to begin. The amount of money they're cutting, we'd have to close campuses, not just small campuses but large campuses," he said. "A cut like this is hard to get my head around."
Wool made it clear, however, that Dunleavy is in for a battle.
"We're going to push back against this," Wool said. "This isn't a done deal by any stretch."
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.