Later this month I will be gathering with my family at the National Cemetery at Fort Richardson, Alaska, to lay my mother’s ashes alongside my father’s. A father who embodied the Alaska spirit as a pilot, hunter and card-carrying Republican. A mother who epitomized the heart of the family as a talented seamstress, hockey mom and bookkeeper. She died on Mother’s Day — a fitting tribute to a dedicated mother. I am filled with gratitude for what they gave me and sadness for their loss.
But I am angry because last week the governor signed a budget that threatens everything my parents worked to build — educational opportunities for young Alaskans. Gone was the responsible budget that our legislators advanced: a budget that incorporated historic reductions to spending while still funding critical and constitutionally defined services with protection of the Alaska Permanent Fund. That is, gone if there is no override of the governor’s vetoes.
My parents were hard-working people born during the Great Depression who strived to give their children more than they had, pushing the next generation forward with their own sweat. Everything my parents did was with their children’s welfare in mind and they taught me to do the same for my children. They brought us to Alaska in 1965 for adventure and stayed for love. I heard the refrain, North to the Future, my whole life.
Early in our childhood, our parents pointed us toward education as a key to that future. Do your homework, excel in school and go to college — make a difference in the world. Two people without much formal education raised three college graduates by staying focused on the goal of a better life for their children.
Thanks to my parents and their vision, I did my homework, I excelled in school, and I went to college. And now, I make a difference in Alaska. I am currently the No. 1 income-producing principal investigator at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and in Alaska. My grants and contracts alone bring over $12 million every year into Alaska, supporting 55 Alaska jobs. Those big satellite antennas you see on the hill and out toward North Pole are part of the Alaska Satellite Facility at UAF. With them, we contract with NASA to research the Earth, focused on the Arctic.
It is critical to know that I cannot get grants or contracts without state support. Law requires that I write proposals on unrestricted funds, aka state funding for the university. Without state funding, my ability to bring dollars and jobs to Alaska is brought to an abrupt end.
Without baseline funding from the state, more than just my project is lost. Without the university, Alaska will not be on the frontlines of the international conversation about the Arctic. Without the University, Georgia or New Hampshire will lead Arctic studies without Alaskans. Without the university, we become observers of our destiny, left out of the conversation about our home. Alaskans will not be relevant to the Arctic and the U.S. will not be the Arctic nation we deserve to be.
The cuts to our university reach beyond my department — immediately 1,300 Alaska jobs lost will be the result of the governor’s line-item vetoes. More loss will come as secondary impacts hit the housing industry, businesses, individual consumers and university contracts. A loss of this many Alaskans is not something our state can take lightly. It will cause permanent damage.
Just as my parents and our Alaska elders have instilled in us, we know that education is vital to the future of our state. Alaska requires people with specialized skills and knowledge, and UA makes opportunities to develop those skills here in Alaska without losing our workforce to other states. I want that growth opportunity for my family and my fellow Alaskans. Just as it has done for me, education and our university system is the key to unlocking this opportunity.
The governor’s budget focuses on the short-term with no regard for Alaska’s future generations. For them, without the university, it will be South to the Future, and that breaks my Alaska heart.
I am channeling my anger by connecting with my legislators and urging them to override the governor’s vetoes. I compel you to do the same. Call them today and tell them why this shortsighted budget doesn’t embody the Alaska you value.
Nettie LaBelle-Hamer received her master’s and Ph.D. from UAF. She lives in Fairbanks and works as the deputy director of the Geophysical Institute and the Alaska Satellite Facility director at UAF.