Legislator addresses budget woes

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ASUAF President Colby Freel (right) and another coalition member (left) enter the State Capitol building in Juneau before meeting with legislators to discuss the university’s budget crisis. Photo courtesy of Allyssia Garcia. Photo credit: Allyssia Garcia

 

Following a weekend conference, student leaders from all three UA campuses met with legislators and advocated for continued university funding in the midst of the statewide fiscal crisis.

“Obviously they understand what the university means for the state of Alaska in a lot of ways, at least the representatives I’ve met with have,” Georgia Durden, an ASUAF senator and Russian studies student said.

Durden met with a number of legislators, but her meeting with Representative Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, stood out. Kawasaki, as well as his parents, attended UAF. As budget cuts continue, he is concerned about the future of the university.

“While the state support continues to drop, I’m worried that there’s going to be students that are just squeezed out,” Kawasaki said. “That they will be denied access to the university simply because they can’t afford it.”

Kawasaki cited the importance of education in his talk with the students.

“I think [higher education] is really important,” Kawasaki said. “The Alaska State constitution says education, health and social services, public safety and the University of Alaska. People wiser than me knew at statehood that that was something they wanted to ensure: a strong education system and that includes everything from pre-K to UA.”

Kawasaki says that he and his colleagues in the House are seeking to free up budget funds for the university by addressing areas of unnecessary spending.

“We’re looking at subsidies to the oil industry,” Kawasaki said. “Those have grown leaps and bounds in the last ten years and now we have to ask ourselves, can we afford paying subsidies to the oil industry?”

“I think the answer is going to have to be no, we can’t pay subsidies while we’re cutting the university, and K-12, and healthcare and public safety,” he said.

The Senate and House differ in their approaches to cutting deficit spending, according to Kawasaki. He described a systematic approach of small cuts in excess spending, such as oil subsidies, paired with a increase in revenue either through a tax restructuring or a utilization of some of the permanent fund.

“The senate on the other hand is looking to cut large areas of spending like transportation, health and social services, education and the university,” Kawasaki said. “I think our surgical approach is much better than the Senate’s hatchet approach.”

He believes the university has dealt with enough budget cuts.

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(From left to right) Victoria McKoy, a Ketchican student, Senator Pete Kelly, ASUAF Government Relations Director Matt Mertes and ASUAF Senator Georgia Durden pose for a photo following their meeting on Monday. Photo courtesy of Georgia Durden. Photo credit: Georgia Durden

 

“It’s really important to me that the young folks coming in know that I was once in their shoes, advocating for UAF,” he said. “They are valued. And their interest in the university has not gone unnoticed.”

“I think this was a great opportunity,” said Allyssia Garcia, an ASUAF senator and political science student. “For the students themselves to make sure that the student voices are heard.”

Other members of UAF’s student government met with North Pole Republican Representative Tammie Wilson.

“She wants to push for more focus on the technological aspects to see [the university] become a little more reformed and a little more modern,” Garcia said. “While there was some difference in our opinions, I think in the long run she supports the university.”

Cordero Reid, an ASUAF senator and psychology student, met with several Fairbanks legislators.

“All the Fairbanks representatives were really responding to our message,” Reid said. “From what I heard from other delegates and their meetings, this legislature has positive feelings regarding the UA system and what it does for Alaska.”

Many of the Fairbanks legislators had other connections to the university, according to Durden.

“There’s a lot of representatives and legislators for the university because they either have students going there or are alumni,” Durden said. “I guess it made me realize that there’s a lot at stake for their own self interest, beyond being in that official role, they also have a life outside of that.”

Most legislators responded well to the students’ suggestions, Reid said, but deferred some responsibility for budget issues.

“They did all point us to the President of the Senate, of whom was identified needed the most convincing,” Reid said.

Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly is currently the President of the Senate. Kelly was unavailable for comment.

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