A coalition of more than 50 University of Alaska students sent an Alaska-size message to state lawmakers Monday, asking for $10.5 million in increased university funding.
At an afternoon rally across the street from the Capitol, student leaders from 11 campuses displayed a 12-foot-tall puzzle of the state with signatures from students and lawmakers who support a 5 percent increase in funding.
The oversized puzzle was emblazoned with the mottos "Get connected" and "5 percent fits," symbolizing the interconnected nature of the university's campuses statewide.
David Parks, 22, a political science senior at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said university enrollment has increased by 36 percent, or about 490 students, since 1998.
"Increased enrollment costs money," Parks said. "Tuition covers nearly half the cost, but as enrollments increase, state support needs to keep pace."
State funding for the university increased by about $6.6 million last year, more than $10 million below the university's $16 million funding request.
University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor John Pugh said the increase largely would cover better pay and benefits for faculty and staff.
The rest would pay for fixed maintenance costs and expansion of the university's nurse-training program. Pugh said the Juneau campus would participate in the nursing program every other year beginning this year.
Without the funding increase, UAS would have to eat the cost, he said.
"I feel pretty good that we're making progress to get the funding that we need," he said.
The university might have a friend in Gov. Frank Murkowski, who requested a $10.6 million increase this year in the state capital budget.
But the increase could have a tough time competing with other budget requests in the Legislature.
Senate Finance Co-chairman Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, told a group of student lobbyists that in addition to increased funding, the state must cover $8.8 million in retirement costs for teachers and public employees.
Although all lawmakers want to increase university funding, "it's difficult to increase one budget while decreasing another budget," Green said.
"It's difficult, very difficult, to not only hold the university harmless but to raise the amount," Green said.
Parks said many have voiced support for the request during the group's week-long lobbying effort.
"We haven't had the same type of support from the Republican side of the aisle for the university, particularly in Anchor- age, which is troubling in that it is representing nearly half of the state's student population," he said, noting that more than 18,000 university students live in Anchorage.
Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, the other co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, attended the afternoon rally and said he fully supports the funding request.
"I think the governor showed his intentions in the budget," Wilken said.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.