As another state budget-making cycle begins, the University of Alaska is in a dangerous place. As the Legislature looks to address slumping state revenue, substantial cuts to the institution seem likely if not assured. Historically, as the state’s fiscal fortunes have waxed and waned, so have those of the university. But that sort of feast-and-famine budget cycling not only causes undue hardship to the university and its employees but also is an inefficient way to provide for an institution that is the engine providing a supply of the state’s future leaders.
This isn’t the first time the university has been put in a pinch. The 1990s saw significant and painful cuts that entailed layoffs and systemwide budget slashing. And to their credit, this time UA President Patrick Gamble and the Board of Regents saw the financial bind coming. The group charged with steering the university has been working on the assumption that lean times were approaching for the past few years. With recent cuts and the potential for more to come, there’s been plenty of hardship to go around nonetheless. At the root of the university’s budget issues is the greater issue of low and declining state revenues, as declining oil production and falling prices for the commodity have been a powerful one-two punch to a state already engaged in deficit spending.
When the state’s revenues have soared in past years, on the other hand, the Legislature has been all too happy to indulge a fondness for spending money as soon as it comes in, and that extends to the money they allocate to the university. When oil revenues rise, so do new buildings at university campuses around the state. And when what goes up inevitably comes back down, buildings, roads and improvement projects remain in stasis, adding to a backlog of deferred maintenance that already weighs heavily on the system’s resources.
Making the problem worse is the tendency toward regionalism both in times of plenty and times of hardship. When budgets soar, the Legislature adopts a tit-for-tat mentality in funding projects. Fairbanks gets a life sciences building, Anchorage gets a new sports arena. One campus is getting a new engineering building? Well, the other one better get one too. Legislators will jump down the regents’ established list of capital priorities to find projects that benefit their neighborhood and insist those projects are a top priority. It’s an efficient way to get rid of money, but it’s not a responsible way to provide for the university system’s needs. The Legislature seems to have little respect for the priorities of the regents despite the clear spelling-out of each group’s role in the university system by the Alaska Constitution.
It’s important to note that the university shouldn’t be untouchable in the budget process, and the regents aren’t perfect arbiters of what is necessary or possible with regard to UA funding. Discussions are already underway about the value of duplicating majors at different campuses or maintaining majors in which few students enroll. These are discussions worth having. And occasionally the regents just get a decision wrong, as in the case of a proposed bonus for Mr. Gamble that he and the board were wise to revisit and reverse after public outcry. But in general, the group does a good job of providing for the university system, and the Legislature should do what it can to smooth out the sine wave of boom and bust that batters the university perhaps more than any other state-funded agency.
How should it do this? Perhaps by suppressing the urge to spend to the limit of its means in fat years, putting funds aside for lean ones — and not cannibalizing funds so allocated for use by other state agencies or projects. The university takes what it’s given by the state and does the best job it can to provide for the future of Alaska. For its part, the state should do a better job of providing a sustainable future for the university.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,