A week ago, the University of Alaska Board of Regents met in what was one of the most head-in-the-sand meetings any organization has held since Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy delivered his scorched-earth vetoes on June 28.
While groups like the Alaska State Council on the Arts set about shutting its doors and saying its goodbyes, while social services programs scrambled to preserve what limited services they could and while the bad news continued to mount for the university when Dunleavy liquidated the state scholarship program’s funds, the Board of Regents delayed action. They hoped that money would be restored by a deeply divided Legislature if maybe the university’s community just hoped a little harder.
In the week since then, the university saw the single largest credit downgrade of any group rated by Moody’s Investment Services in a free-fall that put the University of Alaska’s creditworthiness second from the bottom.
It’s because of that that the Board of Regents, reprimanded by the credit rating agency for its inaction, will be meeting today to finally consider a declaration of financial exigency. It will set the wheels turning—a more apt metaphor might be the knives chopping—on the unfortunate new reality for the University of Alaska.
It will allow the University of Alaska to do essentially overnight what the Dunleavy administration is so fond of saying Alaska must do: Match expenditures to revenues. Programs, campuses, tenured staff, athletics and the very heart of the University of Alaska as we know it will be on the chopping block.
And it’s because of the Legislature’s failure this weekend to once again properly fund a capital budget and restore the scholarship fund among other—specifically driven by most of the minority House Republicans who either withheld their votes for a $3,000 PFD or refused to show up altogether—that should erase any last iota of misplaced hope that rationality will win the day.
Sunday’s fight put $1 billion of federal highway matching money—ostensibly money that Alaskans actually paid for, at least in part, with their taxes—at the center stage. Alaska has a week or maybe less to put up the $73.3 million to secure that funding or risk losing one of the last surviving sources of capital project spending altogether.
It was do-or-die for much of the Legislature, eager to also enact the reverse sweep and avoid the chaos created by liquidating the funds that pay for things previous legislators had hoped to spare from annual budget turmoil: the Power Cost Equalization program, the state’s vaccination program, the ferry system maintenance fund and, of course, the University of Alaska’s scholarship program.
But for eight Republicans it was just another opportunity to fight for a $3,000 PFD—or a chance to show their continued allegiance to the governor—and they once again withheld their votes as the state is careening toward a cliff.
Those legislators are Reps. David Eastman, Sharon Jackson, DeLena Johnson, Lance Pruitt, Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, Cathy Tilton, Sarah Vance and Tammie Wilson. Excused were Reps. Ben Carpenter, Mark Neuman, Sara Rasmussen, George Rauscher, Josh Revak, Laddie Shaw and Dave Talerico.
Five of those votes will need to change their mind to put the state back on course—at least until the next crisis or series of vetoes issued by a governor who pledged stability will grow the economy.
And this particular fight of the day is in service of restoring good ol’ asphalt, concrete and guardrail money.
If it’s a fight to restore that ostensibly popular money, the University of Alaska should be very, very worried that it will see anything close to the $130 million that was erased by Dunleavy’s red pen restored. Republicans like those in the minority have long made the University of Alaska—with its educated, generally progressive faculty, its world-leading climate change research and its concentration of infrastructure in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau—into a punching bag.
The very Republicans who will soon be asked to restore funding for the university as part of the PFD battle are the same who’ve trotted out twisted, cherrypicked statistics and outright falsehoods about the university’s budget while dismissing or ignoring the economic powerhouse that the university is.
This fight is not just about a $3,000 PFD—it never has been—it’s about dismantling as much of the programs fringe Republicans have long called enemies of their party as can be done through minority rule.
Help isn’t coming and if it is, it will not be Medevac helicopter Alaska needs but a band-aid and maybe a handful of over-the-counter painkillers.
The longer that the university puts off cuts, the bigger and more devastating those cuts will need to be. More programs, more faculty and more of Alaska will need to be eliminated to match expenditures to its revenues. Maybe the deep cuts will shock some of Dunleavy’s holdouts into action and maybe they won’t, but the responsible thing to do is literally anything other than the inaction and meaningless platitudes about “belt-tightening” that were trotted out last week.
The sooner the Board of Regents understands that dismal reality, the better.