Thursday was an eventful day for spending on buildings in Alaska. In Anchorage, members of the Legislature finalized the purchase of a $11.85 million building for their Anchorage offices. And in Juneau, in a cruel mirror of the Legislative Information Office purchase, the University of Alaska Board of Regents opted to leverage its bonding authority to the hilt, authorizing a roughly $40 million bond package to finish the much-needed UAF engineering building after the Legislature walked away from a promise to finish it. The dual purchases underscore a sad dichotomy echoing through the state budget crisis: Even in hard fiscal times, the Legislature seems to have no problem finding funds for the projects it values — and somehow, the engineering building the university built to respond to a legislative mandate didn’t make that list.
The UAF engineering building has navigated a winding path, beginning with an ambitious plan supported by the Legislature to build new engineering facilities at UAA and UAF. The buildings were the infrastructure portion of a Legislature-driven plan to increase output of engineers by the university, a smart move that would enable the state to keep more of its brightest students in the state at high-paying jobs rather than importing talent from Outside.
While the UAA building was completed to great fanfare, as was a $109 million sports arena that was a priority of Southcentral legislators but not the Board of Regents, legislative support for the UAF building sputtered after an initial allocation of $60 million. That left the building a half-finished shell, about $35 million short of the funds it needed for completion. In three successive years, the regents asked the Legislature to make good on its promise and complete the building. This spring, the regents realized that support was not forthcoming. To better serve their students and the state, the regents on Thursday unanimously approved a bond package to finish the building themselves, without state funds. It was a hard position for the group, which already had to use much of its bonding capacity in recent years to fund the renovation of the UAF Combined Heat and Power Plant, another critical need that state support only partially covered.
For the Legislature’s own digs in Anchorage, however, there was no sign that funds were in short supply. After opting to purchase a $35 million office in downtown Anchorage that independent firms found to be significantly overpriced relative to comparable properties, legislators were only shamed into reversing themselves after a massive display of public outrage — and then only after they had gone far enough down the path toward the building’s purchase to incur a lawsuit from Anchorage developer Jim Gottstein, who challenged the legality of the building lease. On Thursday, the Legislature finalized the purchase of alternate office space in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood. That building will be significantly cheaper at close to $12 million, but still a poke in the eye to those who watched the university ask for help finishing the engineering building for years only to come up empty. The building will be purchased completely with state funds.
The saga of the two buildings has been an unfortunate duet, illustrating how free the Legislature can be with the purse strings when its members benefit. It will be a boon to UAF, the Fairbanks community and the state to have the engineering building complete. But for those who watched the process of its funding play out, the shining edifice on top of the hill at the corner of College Road and University Avenue may forever be a reminder of the folly of counting on legislative support.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,