University struggles for funds

Inflation may negate budget increases proposed by lawmakers

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2000

A Senate committee's proposal to fund the University of Alaska would force the school to eat inflationary costs. A House bill is more generous, but both plans leave some pay raises in limbo.

The University of Alaska wants $16.9 million more in state general funds than last fiscal year. The increase - from nearly $175 million in general fund appropriations to almost $192 million - would pay for raises for faculty and nonteaching employees, and add teachers in core academic areas depleted by early retirement programs.

It would also pay to expand courses in health care, teacher training and mechanical vocations, and in the growing fields of transporting products (thanks to Internet sales), information technology and natural resources management.

What would the extra money give the university?

``The ability to cover what it is we're currently doing and invest in those areas that are providing the best opportunity for economic diversity and growth in the state,'' said university Budget Director Pat Pitney.

House Bill 441, sponsored by Anchorage Republican Rep. Eldon Mulder, would give the university $17 million more in each of the next two fiscal years. It authorizes paying raises for nonunion workers and for all but one union.

That contract, for the Alaska Community Colleges' Federation of Teachers, would be taken up later. It's the university's only new union contract where raises start next fiscal year.

The House wants to consider all the state's new union contracts together, said Wendy Redman, UA's vice president for university relations.

The ACCFT raises, 2.6 percent a year, are the same as under the former contract.

``We're working very hard to convince the Legislature there really isn't any reason to distinguish between the ACCFT contract and the other contracts because it does continue the monetary terms,'' said Michael Hostina, UA director of labor relations.

ACCFT President Bob Congdon said, ``I'm just hopeful they'll continue to consider the negotiated increases.''

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee approved only an $8.5 million increase for the university. Sen. Sean Parnell, an Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the committee and sponsored the amendment, said it would go ``into the classroom'' for courses that lead to jobs.

But the money could have less buying power if more funds aren't found, university officials said.

Parnell's amendment specifically excluded $3.2 million the university wants to cover inflation for unavoidable costs such as coal.

``The $8.5 million does show the Senate's very much committed to investing in the future of Alaska,'' university budget director Pitney said. But the university will have to reduce the budget elsewhere to fund the real costs of inflation, she added.

Several senators said they would look for more funding for the university, Redman said. ``Hopefully, we could use that for full funding.''

The Senate committee's proposal also excluded $5.1 million for raises, including those in ongoing union contracts. The Senate wants to consider together all contract raises, old and new, Redman said.

The Legislature must specifically appropriate money for raises if they're going to happen. The university can't use other operating funds for them.

Other than cost-of-living raises, faculty get only two raises in their careers and those are from promotions, said Don Cecil, chairman of the university's statewide Faculty Alliance.

If raises aren't funded, ``It will certainly mean morale problems in the ranks,'' he said.

It's not just the raises, it's the whole issue of education funding, said Virginia Mulle, a sociology professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

``Of course everybody would like to have a raise because of the cost of living. But the message is that education is not valued,'' she said.

Alaska ranked 49th among states in the growth of state funds for higher education's operating expenses in the past 10 fiscal years, according to the Center for Higher Education and Educational Finance at Illinois State University.

Alaska's appropriations declined by 1 percent in that decade, compared with an average state increase of 44.5 percent.

But state contributions have grown 4.7 percent in the past two fiscal years, compared with 14.4 percent nationwide, the center said.

Redman of the university said she's encouraged that both the House and Senate have indicated strong support this session for funding the university.

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