UAF campus

The setting sun illuminates buildings on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in April 2019.  

After months of crisis planning and bracing for a possible 41% budget cut, University of Alaska officials signed a compact with Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday that outlines a three-year “glide path” to cut state funding for the institution. The contract outlines that $70 million will be cut from the university over the next three years. While university officials are calling the $70 million cut more manageable than Dunleavy’s original plan to cut $135 in a single year, some legislators still have concerns. 

Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki took issue with the plan, outlining his grievances in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. 

“We have to ask ourselves, what do we value in our communities? Do we value an educated public that has the knowledge and skillset to make Alaska’s economy thrive or do we want diminished opportunities for young Alaskans?” Kawasaki asked. “To have a thriving economy with a skilled workforce takes resources. Continuing to strip these resources will force the next generation of Alaskans to seek opportunities elsewhere. That is not the Alaskan way, and that is not what we do in Fairbanks where we value our University system.”

The first-year senator, who previously served 11 years as a state representative, spurned the exclusion of the Legislature in the planning process.

“Gov. Dunleavy simply doesn’t get it. We operate in a democracy where there are specific roles of each branch of government,” Kawasaki continued. “The legislature is the appropriating branch, and Gov. Dunleavy cannot constitutionally make appropriation deals that bind future legislatures. It circumvents Alaska’s respected constitution and the public process.”

Kawasaki has long been an advocate for the university and education funding across the board, calling out what he sees as a contradiction in the governor’s positions on funding. 

“The same Governor who argued that forward funding K-12 education was unconstitutional has now bullied the University of Alaska to accept a 3 year forward DE-funding plan. The Legislative branch maintains the constitutional authority to make appropriations. I see this deal as an overstep of the Governor’s authority in the budget process and a violation of the principle of the separation of powers,” Kawasaki wrote in a Wednesday Facebook post. “The Governor may have flip flopped from his original plan to gut the University by $145 million but strong arming the University into accepting a 3 year reduction is nothing short of #extortion.”

Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool, while not having quite as strong an opinion on the matter, also questioned the plan.

“First of all I’m glad they’re not going to cut $135 million,” Wool said Wednesday. “I don’t really have a problem negotiating a multiyear deal, but maybe the university kind of had a gun to their head to some extent.”

Wool was relieved the budget cut will be $25 million this year rather than $135 million, noting he didn’t think the Legislature would have been able to override another university budget veto from Dunleavy this year.

“I’m glad he’s letting us put that $110 million back from his original cut,” Wool said. “I don’t think we could have overturned that one again.”

Still though, Wool says $70 million over three years may be too much.

“That’s a lot and I really don’t think it’s necessary,” Wool said. “We’ve cut from the university every year for the past five years, so when is it enough?”

With regard to the separation of powers his colleague took issue with, Wool said he understands the governor also has budgetary power, but was still confused about the governor’s motives. 

“Obviously the Legislature has the power to appropriate so I wonder what his plan is,” Wool said. “I mean you can only cut the university so much before it starts to damage the state as a whole. I have mixed feelings, I’m glad the full cut didn’t happen.”

The University of Alaska Fairbanks campus sits within Wool’s House District 5. Fairbanks Republican Sen. Click Bishop also has UAF in his district. Bishop said it was “taken aback” when he first saw the compact, sharing similar concerns with Kawasaki over the perceived slight to the separation of powers.

“I thought on it, and I still don’t want to relinquish my power and constitutional authority as an appropriator,” Bishop said. “I can certainly see the university’s position in trying to not completely decimate the system in one year but I still have concerns.”

Bishop, as with Kawasaki, also identified what he considers to be a contradiction in the governor’s position regarding forward funding.

“I mean this isn’t forwarding funding so much as a forward cut, but still, I’m not sure how they see that as legal,” Bishop said. “If they’re making the argument the other way and taking issue with our forward funding K-12, it just seems like they’ve negated there position right there.”

The UA Board of Regents will meet on Sept. 12-13 in Anchorage to discuss the compact and possible plans for consolidation. 

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