The Alaska Performance Scholarship, Alaska Education Grants and the WWAMI regional medical school program were all placed on hold today thanks to a decision by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s administration to break from precedent and include the Alaska Higher Education Investment Fund in an annual sweep of funds.
The impact, according to an email from the Alaska Commission on Post-secondary Education to students, is that the payment of all the programs will be put on hold. Students can still submit applications in hopes that the Alaska Legislature restores the funding (and that the funding isn’t subsequently vetoed by the governor).
“These programs were not vetoed. The governor and the Legislature have indicated desire to make the programs available for the upcoming year. The issue is that the current funding source does not have funds available for the programs,” explained the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education in an email to students this afternoon. “We are hopeful that this situation will be resolved with legislation over the next month; however, as of this time, ACPE is not able to make awards under these programs.”
The University of Alaska has been a prime target of the governor in his vetoes and cuts. He delivered a gutting $130 million veto the University of Alaska among his $444 million in vetoes.
The Legislature can reverse the sweep of funds with a three-quarter vote in each chamber, which effectively gives the Dunleavy-aligned minority House Republicans leverage to push for a $3,000 dividend.
The action comes after the failure of the Legislature to pass what’s called a “reverse sweep” that essentially skirts an automatic transfer of various savings accounts into the Constitutional Budget Reserve after the Legislature has spent from it, as it has done heavily in recent years.
The failure to pass the reverse sweep itself, which came after minority House Republicans withheld their votes over the PFD, would not have normally affected the scholarship fund or a handful of other popular programs like the Power Cost Equalization Fund.
The sweep of the Alaska Higher Education Investment Fund comes as a decision by the Dunleavy administration to reinterpret long-standing precedent and include accounts that were long thought to be outside of the sweep.
The Senate Finance Committee spent most of Tuesday trying to figure out what is happening or what might happen to several accounts. Legislators realized the risk that the administration could reach into accounts that were once held separately but had little answers on Tuesday.
“The administration doesn’t seem to be shy about reinterpreting laws and policies,” said Legislative Finance Division Director David Teal. “We simply don’t know. It’s not like we haven’t asked for lists of what would be swept. We have and we’ve been told they will not release the list to us.”
When Senate Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, mentioned various rumors about the administration’s plans to sweep accounts like the Higher Education Investment Fund and the Power Cost Equalization Fund, Legislative Auditor Kris said she hadn’t heard anything solid but wouldn’t be surprised.
“I have heard rumors. The rumors are flying. I have been watching this administration reinterpret law. They’re not shy in doing so and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens,” she said.
Curtis was similarly in the dark about what the administration planned. She said it’s important for the Legislature, as the appropriating body, to be informed of these decisions and said typically decisions about what’s open to be swept and what’s not is a discussion between the executive and the Legislature.
Teal described the sweep as “throwing sand into the gears” of Alaska’s government. He was critical, too, that the administration’s decisions would be made without any public input.
“I find it unfortunate that the sweep looks like it will not follow precedent. That changes will occur without public or legislative knowledge or input,” he said. “How many of those students are going to have to say, ‘Well, I guess I’m not going to school this year?’”
Both Curtis and Teal agreed that any decisions to break from precedent about what’s subject to the sweep is entirely a policy decision by the administration.
There was no news on the fate of the Power Cost Equalization Fund on Tuesday, but Teal did explain that the Legislature had attempted to protect the account when it set the fund as the funding source for the crime bill.
“If he sweeps the fund, there is no funding for the crime bill,” Teal explained. “If he decides that the existing list of sweep-able funds is going to remain untouched then the crime bill is funded. This is not anything that you, the Legislature, can vote on or do anything about. It’s the governor’s decision.”