This story has been updated to better reflect Rep. Wilson's stated reasoning behind the proposed reduction.
JUNEAU — A North Pole legislator’s proposed budget for the University of Alaska is a far deeper cut than even the worst-case scenario university officials feared.
Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson proposed Thursday night in a finance subcommittee she chairs to fund only “student instruction” throughout the UA system, amounting to a nearly 18 percent reduction from last year’s funding level.
Wilson, during the Thursday night meeting, said the number didn’t include money for research or athletics because she said student instruction was the only thing all legislators could agreed the state should fund. Anything else, she said, would need to be debated before being added back in.
She also said she was under the impression from prior comments made by UA President Jim Johnsen that research paid for itself. At the Thursday meeting he clarified that it brings in federal money and other grants, but requires matching money from the university.
Wilson’s proposal would drop the funding level for the University of Alaska to $288 million, down from $351 million for the current fiscal year. Gov. Bill Walker had already announced a proposed cut of about $16 million amid worsening state finances due to a dramatic slump in oil prices.
President Johnsen told the Board of Regents at its Friday meeting that even Walker’s cut isn’t going to be pleasant.
“I think we make it, though not comfortably, but we can make it through,” he said.
The university chancellors also spoke about a contingency plan they had put together in anticipation of the Legislature making deeper cuts. Johnsen said that plan was for about $24 million in further cuts.
“As you’d expect, a great deal of reduction of positions — although frankly if Rep. Wilson has her way it’ll be worse than this — under 1.5 times the governor’s reduction, we’re looking at a reduction of 450 to 500 positions across the university,” he said. “There would be a considerable program reduction.”
Johnsen’s appraisal of Wilson’s proposed cut was blunt, telling the regents that “it’s not a good number at all.”
Wilson has already made clear she intends to hear amendments and hold a discussion on the number, which is the only say the Legislature has when it comes to the University of Alaska. Just how the money is spent is ultimately up to the Board of Regents.
Johnsen said he’s optimistic about returning some of the money.
“I think that if we put together a good case this weekend, we’ll end up with a number coming out of House Finance that’s north of $288 million,” he said. “How far north, I’m not sure.”
Johnsen said the university will be looking toward cutting contracted and non-tenured positions first if deeper cuts are passed down by the Legislature, simply because of the timing needed to create and approve a new budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Regent Kenneth Fisher seemed concerned about the university’s ability to respond to the magnitude of the cuts proposed by the Legislature. Tenured positions, Johnsen said, require a year’s notice of a layoff.
“A year out, that doesn’t help us. ... If we’re dealing with July 1 and we would need to be living under a current budget that’s $62 million less than we’re getting now,” he said, “how do you manage that?”
Johnsen said there is a possible option where the university system, a campus or even a program could declare financial exigency, essentially bankruptcy, and tenured positions could come up earlier. He strongly advised against it because of the damage it could do to the university long-term.
“While legally, technically it’s different than Chapter 11 (bankruptcy) I think in most people’s eyes it’s very similar,” he said. “We’d be sending a very negative message out to the Alaska community if we took that approach. That will be a tough decision but one that would come to this body before it’s ever made.”
The subcommittee will reconvene Monday, with a vote on the plan expected Tuesday.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544.