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Community Perspective

The University of Alaska and the Alaska Constitution

One has to wonder why in fact the state’s university is even mentioned in the Alaska Constitution. Maybe it is there for guaranteeing education opportunities, or maybe it is there for guaranteeing research into science, economics or social issues that could be consider controversial. Whatever the reason was, the framers believed a certain amount of independence was in order as in the university shall be “governed” by the board of regents.

However, if the governor says that the university’s monetary support from the state will be increased or decreased based on what the governor decides what exactly the university should or should not be doing, i.e. not based on what the board of regents wants, such as, say, not conducting oil taxation research or only promoting a pure teaching mission, then clearly the independence of the board of regents is in doubt, and thus the university’s governance is de facto run by the governor. That is, the governor runs the university, not the board of regents, a violation of the constitution.

The only way around this dilemma, and to give the regents independence to be the governing board of the university, is to have a dedicated funding source for the university. Of course, the constitution also says that state taxes or revenues shall not be dedicated to any special purpose, such as the university, which suggests that there can be no dedicated funding of the university. Nevertheless, dedicating funds to a university is not unusual. Cornell University acquired 500,000 acres of valuable timberland in northern Wisconsin, for example, as a provision of Congress’ Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 even though Cornell is in New York.

But wait, didn’t Congress do the same for Alaska?

Interestingly, the federal government did give education in Alaska, both K-12 and the university, an independent source of funding — 5% of Alaska’s state lands turned over from the federal government’s allocation of land to the state and that can be sold. These 5% of lands were to be sold as revenue to education, which is to say the federal government does promulgate dedicated funding in Alaska, contrary to the Alaska Constitution, at least for education. The 5% of all lands given to the state were to be sold as revenue to education, but the federal law did not specify which lands were to be given to this dedicated purpose. It is likely, though, that the federal government intended that these 5% of lands would be on par in value as any land the state has received from the federal government, i.e. 5% of downtown Anchorage say, or 5% of the most lucrative mine in Alaska and 5% of Prudhoe Bay’s mineral rights, which were sold as lease property and therefore could be part of the 5% of those land rights as well.

You could even go further and argue that as a fully fledged property right owner and property right seller, the university and K-12 would not only get 5% of all royalties but that they can themselves determine what that royalty is, say, 5% of oil taxes as well. “Oh here education, we the state are about to sell the Prudhoe Bay lease of which 5% of those lands are yours, would you mind agreeing to the lease sale?” “Sure, just make sure to give us 5% of all oil royalties and taxes that you receive after that sale, and you have a bargain.” “OK.”

After all, as a land and mineral right owner, you do not have to sell your lease unless you get a good deal. The lawyers and economists won’t agree. Nevertheless, the independence of the university looks to depend on an independence of state funding. But a guaranteed amount of state funding to the university, rather than funding that must be negotiated for and that changes depending on what the governor, or for that matter, what the legislators want, is a tall order.

Thus these two constitutional sections may be in conflict, but only because the governor insists on explicit directions of the university. But such insistence proves the point that the board of regents no longer governs the university. So now the governor has opened a Pandora’s box, and there may be no way to close it, and all future governors will start to insist exactly what the university can and cannot do or else it will be subject to cuts, unless there is a dedicated fund. Alaska’s Constitution is fascinating indeed.

Doug Reynolds is a professor of Petroleum and Energy Economics at the University of Alaska. He can be contacted at DBReynolds@Alaska.Edu.


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