By Zachariah Hughes and Susan Svrluga / The Washington Post
ANCHORAGE — An attempt by lawmakers to stop deep cuts to public universities in Alaska faltered this week, leaving administrators preparing to slash academic programs and start the unprecedented process of removing tenured faculty.
The Legislature was literally divided, with some lawmakers convening at the state Capitol while others gathered in a town hundreds of miles away designated by the governor. As a result, not enough votes were cast Wednesday to reach the three-quarters threshold needed to overturn vetoes by the governor that would spark deep cuts to education and other services.
“This is a time of tremendous uncertainty,” University of Alaska System President James Johnsen said, with some legislators working to craft a compromise. He said university system regents would meet Monday and declare what is known as financial exigency to more rapidly shut down programs and academic units and to remove faculty.
He reassured students: “We will be open this fall.”
The University of Alaska is facing a 41 percent cut in state funding for the current fiscal year, a reduction so stark that its accrediting agency took the unusual step of writing a letter warning state legislators before they voted.
“Failure to properly fund these institutions could have disastrous effects, including the potential loss of accreditation, that could be felt for generations,” wrote Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
The dramatic cut would follow years of reductions, Ramaswamy said. “How do you remain a viable operation? We have not seen anything like this.”
While protesters rallied and politicians argued about executive versus legislative power, university officials explored how they could make such dramatic and rapid cuts. Johnsen had already issued a freeze on hiring, new contracts and travel, and announced that layoffs would be necessary.
He estimated that 1,300 jobs across the university system might need to be eliminated and that no one’s job was safe, including his. The system has nearly 6,600 employees.
It is not responsible to make radical cuts so suddenly to any organization’s budget, Johnsen said, much less a university.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy did not respond to requests for comment.
In the 2018 governor’s race, Dunleavy campaigned on a promise to pay a higher Permanent Fund Dividend, the annual checks sent to state residents from a fund created through the state’s oil wealth.
After low oil prices created revenue shortfalls, the previous governor and legislature lowered the dividend to help close budget gaps.
University officials had been expecting stark reductions from the governor and were relieved when the Legislature proposed a comparatively modest $5 million cut earlier this year.
Then, Dunleavy announced 182 line-item vetoes that amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars from throughout the state budget. The toll on the university system was stark: $135 million cut from the current fiscal year.
State lawmakers technically have until 11:59 p.m. Friday to override the governor’s sweeping line-item vetoes. But it is far from clear that a political path exists to get there.
Legislators cannot even agree on where to meet, with a sizable faction of Republicans aligned with the governor holding sessions at a middle school in Wasilla. That stalemate could allow cuts to go into effect by default.
Lawmakers in Juneau gave impassioned speeches about the impact the budget vetoes will have on constituents and the state’s long-term prospects. State Rep. Steve Thompson, a Republican from Fairbanks, home to the state’s flagship university, said he had received messages from scientists as far away as France and Algeria saying cuts to Arctic research threaten their own work on climate change.
The vote to override Wednesday was 37 to 1, but 22 legislators were absent from the session at the state Capitol because the governor had called for them to meet in Wasilla. Those 22 Republicans met in a school gym, with protesters shouting outside.
On Thursday, at a joint floor session in Juneau, the situation was not much changed.
“He is taking away our power of appropriation,” state Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, said of Dunleavy’s approach. “This governor is trying to hamstring the two other branches of government. This is the behavior we often see in failing democracies.”
The joint session in Juneau adjourned shortly after noon Thursday without resolution on an override vote.
Members of the university are bracing for the worst, including the loss of scholarship money, termination of tenured faculty, the end of degree programs and even potential shuttering of campuses.
“Everything has to be on the table,” Johnsen said. Even if officials closed the University of Alaska at Anchorage, the state’s largest campus, “that doesn’t get us there,” he said.
Earlier this week, news broke that the governor’s administration had changed the way several important higher-education programs are funded.
Traditionally, earnings from the $340 million Higher Education Investment Fund are used to pay for merit-based scholarships, education grants and a medical school partnership between Alaska and other Western states.
According to the Senate Democrats’ press secretary, Noah Hanson, Dunleavy’s move to shift those funds into the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve account is an “unprecedented action.”
“Over 5,000 students benefit from these educational funding programs,” Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, wrote.
Johnsen said school officials would do everything they could to make sure students who had worked hard received the scholarships they had been promised. “Hang on,” he said.
At a recent rally of more than 1,000 people in Anchorage, student Jenna DiFolco held a handmade sign that read, “Citizens Before Corporations. Down with Dunleavy.”
“Education is the biggest issue that I care about,” said DiFolco, a junior studying environmental science at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.
Earlier that day, she learned that the pending fiscal measures will probably terminate the scholarship money she depends on, meaning she will have to drop out of school ahead of the fall semester.
“I might just have to work for a while,” DiFolco said.