The state's higher education system had no luck at all in the House convincing legislators that an increase in funding is necessary for the next fiscal year. In fact, what University of Alaska system leaders ended up with when the dust settled in the House was flat funding -- essentially, a cut.
So far, the news doesn't look much better from the Senate side. Anchorage Republican Sen. Dave Donley, the Senate's operating budget chief, this week unveiled his proposal to give the university system the same amount of funding it received last year. As is true of what the House approved, without providing some cushion for normal rises in costs from year to year, this amounts to millions in cuts.
University officials estimate that such flat funding would equate to program cuts because UA would be forced to cover $5.7 million rise in costs from previously negotiated contracts and another $3.8 million in other fixed cost increases over normal inflation.
Fairbanks Sens. Gary Wilken and Pete Kelly, both Republicans, have said they plan to try to increase funding for UA, but it's clear that in a year when both the House and Senate have vowed to ''hold the line'' on the state budget, they have a tough fight ahead of them.
Still, it's too early to give up hope that the Senate might realize the folly of flat funding for the UA system. And perhaps the two senators will have some luck convincing others of the value of investing adequately in Alaska's higher education system. Today, the Senate is expected to debate amendments regarding the budget. Hopefully, those amendments will include measures relating to UA funding.
The cuts and flat funding that some legislators are pushing for so many different areas of the state's budget will all seriously impact Alaskans. Many of those cuts, in areas such as parks, law enforcement, and highway maintenance, would be felt almost immediately. While it is true that cuts to the university system would have little effect right away on the day-to-day lives of most Alaskans, eventually these choices would catch up with us.
Alaskans rely on our university system to keep the best students in state and to prepare a skilled work force and the professionals of tomorrow. The lesson learned in the 1990s was clear: cut corners on education and sooner or later, the negative effects will be felt. For much of the '90s, the state's higher education system went through a tough period, primarily due to funding shortages. For the past few years, wisely made funding increases have done much to turn around those problems.
To revert back now is the wrong choice for Alaskans, for our education system and for our future. ------
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