UA president warns budget cuts would injure university

Scholarships to keep Alaska's brightest in state for college would suffer

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

ANCHORAGE - University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton warned of budget "carnage" if the state House spending plan makes it through the state Senate and is approved by Gov. Frank Murkowski.

One of the most likely cuts: the UA scholars program, which guarantees free tuition to Alaska high school students finishing in the top 10 percent of their class. It's aimed at keeping Alaska's brightest in the state.

The University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau enrolls 25 to 30 such scholars as first-time freshmen each year, said Chancellor John Pugh.

Hamilton, speaking from Fairbanks, and Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau appeared in a joint video press conference earlier this week to make their case for financial support of education at both levels.

Gov. Frank Murkowski proposed cutting $27.8 million in state support for kindergarten through high school education next year and boosting the UA budget by $10.3 million. In this year's budget, schools receive $769 million in general fund money and the UA system $206.1 million.

The House on Thursday approved a budget adding $20 million more to public schools - drawing from the $10.3 million Murkowski had designated for higher education. The budget would have the effect of reducing the UA budget by $12 million after accounting for fixed costs and inflation, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said he hoped the Legislature would add more money for K-12 schools while supporting the governor's request for the university. House lawmakers have posed the funding as an "either-or" question, Hamilton said.

"It's a false dilemma, that somehow the funds have to be divided - university and K-12 - as though they were the only players involved," he said.

Pugh said losing the $10.3 million would mean the university system would have to absorb salary increases from other parts of its budget. In Juneau alone, that would cost other programs about $500,000, he said.

It could mean not implementing a new bachelor's degree program in information systems, he said, as well as other cuts.

"Then we'll just have to do program reviews and look at what programs we have to pare," Pugh said.

The university system also would be unlikely to expand its associate degree in nursing program from Anchorage to Juneau, as had been planned, Pugh said.

Hamilton and Comeau suggested legislators should address the issue of finding other revenue.

"I think the public is ready to have a serious discussion about meeting the constitutional mandates and how we're going to get there," Comeau said.

Alaska has $22 billion in a savings account and the university is being treated like a bank robber, Hamilton said. The university president, who earns well in excess of $200,000 annually, said he is willing to pay taxes.

"My message is: You can tax me, you can sin-tax me, you can head-tax me. I guess you can't tourist-tax me. You can do a personal-income tax, do a sales tax, you can do, Legislature, what you need to do to make this state as exciting and as promising as the one that absolutely dropped me to my knees 15 years ago when I saw this marvelous place," Hamilton said.

The alternative is a return to the 1990s, when the university saw 10 years of minimal budget increases, he said.

• Empire reporter Eric Fry contributed to this article.

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