Knowles backs boost in university spending

Posted: Tuesday, December 12, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles is backing a request from the University of Alaska regents to boost spending for the state university system by $16.9 million.

Knowles made the announcement in a crowded library at the University of Alaska Anchorage on Monday, the first day of finals for students.

It's unclear, however, whether the Legislature will again approve a big boost in university spending. The university system last year got a $13.7 million increase in its operating budget, after what Knowles called years of underfunding.

''It's hard to tell,'' said Sen. Gary Wilken, a Fairbanks Republican who will sit on the Finance Committee and chair the capital budget subcommittee. ''I can tell you that for the Interior delegation, it will be a top priority. We need to keep that momentum going with (university president) Mark Hamilton.''

The increase would boost university general fund spending from $188.8 million to $205.7 million.

''It's just too soon for me, at least, to know how the Legislature is going to respond,'' agreed Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican who will serve on the House Finance Committee.

Knowles said it's important to continue investing in the university system.

''You cannot have strong families without hope and the opportunity for a good job,'' Knowles said, repeating his ''jobs and families'' mantra. ''We know Alaska's future depends on the economic base. And there is no institution more important than the University of Alaska in realizing that.''

The governor said the budget hike would help recruit and retain Alaska students, and help train Alaskans for the highly technical and professional jobs of the global economy.

The regents' budget endorsed by Knowles earmarks $2.5 million toward getting the university system ready to produce workers for a natural gas pipeline or missile defense system, two major projects that may be in Alaska's future.

It calls for $4.2 million for job training in education, health care, and information technology.

Meeting the increases mandated in university labor contracts adds $5.1 million.

Other increases would go toward student advising and support services, distance education, new equipment, and increasing business efficiency.

But while Knowles went along with the regents on the operating budget, he didn't endorse their top requests for capital spending, including $8.5 million for new classrooms at community campuses, $12.1 million for classroom and lab improvements, and about $8 million for expanding the museum at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Wilken was surprised at the governor's decision not to back the museum project.

''I'm disappointed with the governor,'' Wilken said. I thought that was a slam-dunk. I think the $28 million raised from the community and other sources deserves some recognition.''

Knowles' capital budget request calls for $39 million in spending, but that includes $30 million in federal money for a supercomputer upgrades and $2.5 million for an air traffic control simulator that wouldn't come from the general fund.

As far as state spending in capital improvements, Knowles went along with $1.5 million for replacing the university's primary computer system, the first part of a two-phase project. He's suggesting $450,000 for the small business development center and $375,000 for integrating voice, data and video networks for distance education.

The biggest item in the governor's proposal for capital spending is $4 million for dormitory sprinkler systems and other safety upgrades. The regents suggested $14.3 million in that category.

Hamilton said that while the university's capital spending proposal shouldn't be seen as a ''wish list,'' it was a complete list of all the things the university needed, ranked by priority.

''It seems to be it's the responsibility of the organization to say, 'Here's everything we need,'' Hamilton said, ''not to tell the legislators what we can afford.''

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