JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Gov. Mike Dunleavy moderated his position on cuts to the University of Alaska system Tuesday, supporting a $70 million cut in operating costs over three years compared with a $135 million cut he had earlier endorsed for this year.
Dunleavy said his decision resulted from talks with university officials and is unrelated to efforts to recall him from his office, which have been fueled by public outrage over his earlier budget vetoes.
An agreement, signed Tuesday by Dunleavy and Board of Regents Chair John Davies, calls for the Republican governor to support a $25 million cut to university operations this year, followed by a $25 million cut next year and a $20 million cut the following year. The university is to provide annual reports on progress it’s making toward its goals.
Budget vetoes announced by Dunleavy in June included $130 million in state support for the university system, which was on top of $5 million cut by lawmakers. In a letter accompanying his vetoes, Dunleavy said the budget had been thoroughly reviewed, “and my policies were applied consistently across the board.” He said the budget focused on the state’s “basic responsibilities while understanding our fiscal constraints.” The state has been grappling with an ongoing deficit.
Unable to override the vetoes, lawmakers last month passed legislation to restore many of the cuts. That bill included a $25 million cut for the university this year.
Ahead of a final decision on that bill, expected this week, Dunleavy has highlighted areas he previously cut but now says he’ll agree to fund, including early childhood learning programs and a program that provides cash benefits to lower-income older Alaskans.
Dunleavy credited his vetoes with forcing Alaskans to talk about what they value and said he listened to comments he received.
“We’re not done with this fiscal issue. We’re going to keep working through it,” he said Tuesday when discussing early childhood education funding. “But what became pretty clear, I think, to everybody is that Alaskans value our elders, our seniors, and we value our children, our youngest.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, said Dunleavy’s vetoes caused fear for Alaska seniors who rely on the benefits program. “I strongly encourage Gov. Dunleavy to stop governing from the hip and to have a productive conversation with Alaskans and legislative leadership to move Alaska forward,” he said in a news release.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, said he’s grateful the university system won’t face the level of cuts that had been planned, but “these vetoes never should have happened in the first place. I remain concerned about the potential impacts of future reductions, and I firmly stand by the Legislature’s role as the appropriating body.”
Sen. Scott Kawasaki, a Fairbanks Democrat, said Dunleavy can’t make appropriation deals that bind future legislatures. He also took issue with continued university system cuts.
“To have a thriving economy with a skilled workforce takes resources. Continuing to strip these resources will force the next generation of Alaskans to seek opportunities elsewhere,” Kawasaki said in a release.
University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said damage has been done to the university in terms of its ability to recruit and retain staff and enroll students. “But that’s done,” he said, adding that the task now is to look forward.
He said the proposed cuts are serious and difficult, coming on top of prior-year cuts. The Board of Regents is expected to meet next month to discuss its options.