March 8, 2002 The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner says lawmakers are underfunding state university

Posted: Monday, March 11, 2002

In politics and finance, remember the adage: Don't believe everything you hear.

The House Finance Committee leadership announced its general fund spending targets late last month, which will be used as starting points for the Legislature's budget debate. Those targets, they said, included an increase in funding for the University of Alaska system of 2.4 percent, or about $4.6 million.

While that was far below the $16.9 million requested by UA President Mark Hamilton, it was a starting point at least to begin budget discussions.

However, it quickly became clear that House Republican budget leaders were playing a numbers game. It turns out that while their proposal included a $4.6 million general fund spending increase, that amount will be virtually erased due to funding the university system will not receive from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation. The post-secondary loan fund faltered in the stock market.

The end result of those two facts is that the budget leaders are proposing a flat funding level for the next fiscal year, even though they tried to pass it off as an increase.

Hamilton warned a budget subcommittee earlier this week that such flat funding will translate into program cuts. The university will be forced to look elsewhere to cover the basic cost increases that come with doing business -- which translates into cuts somewhere.

''A flat funding scenario would back-step more distance than any of the last two years has brought us forward,'' Hamilton told the subcommittee. But its members did not agree, voting along party lines to advance the proposal to the full Finance Committee for consideration.

It is without question that legislators are facing some tough financial issues. The state is facing a projected $1 billion budget shortfall and the state's safety net, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, is scheduled to run out of money in 2004. Some lawmakers are talking about the possibilities of taxes, while others argue that curtailing spending is the only solution.

In truth, the best long-term solution likely lies somewhere in the middle of these two factions. But holding steady funding for higher education cannot be considered a long-term solution for Alaska.

Alaskans rely on our university system to keep our best students in state, and to prepare the skilled work force of tomorrow. If we begin cutting corners now, it will show in the near future. If we continue to make wise investments in higher education, that, too, will show.

As legislators move forward with this difficult debate, we hope they keep in mind the state's needs, not just this year, but well into the future, and that they recognize the university's role in that future.

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