UA Budget Cuts

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen address the media in response to Gov. Mike Dunleavy's proposed budget cuts to the university Wednesday afternoon, February 13, 2019.

FAIRBANKS - University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen on Wednesday countered Gov. Mike Dunleavy's Monday letter to the university community, calling the governor's deep budget cuts "a policy choice for Alaskans, not a fiscal necessity."

Dunleavy sent a letter to the university community Monday claiming "some" had been inaccurately reporting his budget cut numbers. He recharacterized his sweeping cuts to university funding as a 17 percent cut to the overall university budget rather than a 41 percent cut in state funding.

However, the percentages equal the same number: a cut of $134 million in state unrestricted general funds, the largest in the university's 100-year history.

This is exactly what Johnsen communicated to staff, faculty and students in writing Wednesday.

"Whether the governor’s proposed cut to the university is 41 percent of our state funding or 17 percent of our total budget, it is still a cut of $134 million," Johnsen wrote.

Johnsen took a swing at Dunleavy's budget as a whole, noting that the governor is slashing education and health care under the claims of a massive deficit but spending more than the deficit on increased permanent fund dividend payouts.

"The governor justifies cuts to education, health care and other government services by citing a $1.6 billion deficit," Johnsen wrote. "However, the budget proposal includes a $1.9 billion appropriation for PFDs. This budget then is a policy choice for Alaskans, not a fiscal necessity."

In addition to slashing the university budget, Dunleavy proposed cuts of $280 million from the Department of Education's per-student funding, referred to as base student allocation, as well as a cut of $365 million for the Department of Health and Social Services.

Over the past four years, the university has seen a cumulative budget cut of approximately $195 million, resulting in approximately 1,200 layoffs and the loss of programs. In his Feb. 13 budget, Dunleavy proposed reducing the university’s state funding to $193 million from this year’s $327 million.

Johnsen gave the example that a $134 million cut to the university is the approximate equivalent of total state funding to the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Southeast, combined.

Since the release of Dunleavy's budget on Feb. 13, Johnsen has emphasized that the university would likely have to close whole campuses and make other program and personnel cuts.

"Our students sign up for programs that last from one to four or more years," Johnsen wrote. "With a $134 million cut, UA would have no choice but to immediately eliminate academic programs midstream, along with about 1,500 faculty and staff that support students in those programs."

UA Board of Regents Chairman John Davies backed Johnsen's message, accusing Dunleavy of "trying to mislead people" by recharacterizing his cuts.

"There's a modicum of factualness in that it's true that $134 million is 17 percent of our current budget," Davies said. "But the other lines in the budget the governor refers to, the tuition receipts and research money, those will be reduced as a result of this cut in state funding."

Davies added that tuition and research funding depend upon state funding as a basis — if the university is cut, enrollment will go down, thus reducing tuition. Likewise, facilities and personnel in charge of writing grant proposals and receiving research funding will also be cut.

"Even if it were just a $134 million cut, that would still be an enormous amount of money, but it's not just that funding that will disappear," he said.

Dunleavy Chief of Staff Jeremy Price, in a statement to the News-Miner, accused Johnsen of wanting to take dividends away from Alaskans.

“From this perspective, it appears President Johnsen would like to once again take Alaskans' PFDs to pay for a university system that has grown beyond its means, consistently failed to perform, and very frankly lost the trust of many Alaskans through its mismanagement," Price said.

“The systemic problems at the university have gone on for far too long – with 6-year graduation rates below 30 percent, the loss of accreditation, declining enrollment, and exorbitant faculty salaries. The university has become accustomed to receiving a state subsidy that is twice the national average despite these horrific outcomes. We must get back to basics. President Johnsen should follow the Governor’s lead and build a budget from the ground up that focuses on the real customer – the student, not the bureaucracy.”

Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Dunleavy, cited enrollment and expenditure information from and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association as sources for some of Price's statements.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.