State House Speaker Bryce Edgmon joined five Fairbanks-area legislators and University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen Wednesday for a news conference focused on overriding the governor's deep cuts to the university system and other state programs. The lawmakers and Johnsen then spoke to about 700 people at a town hall in Fairbanks, almost all of whom urged them to override.
Edgmon says he sat in on Wednesday’s news conference and a packed meeting later in the day to get a sense of what Alaskans who are represented by the five Fairbanks legislators have been telling them to do in response to the deep budget cuts Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced last week.
“To hear the reaction to, especially, the university cuts, and just sort of the visceral nature of it all,” he said in an interview. “And being able to take that back with me back to Juneau when we convene here in a few short days.”
The Legislature will get together Monday in a special session called by Dunleavy to decide how much of a Permanent Fund dividend Alaskans will get this year. But the lawmakers say they’ll first consider overriding at least some of the $400 million the governor vetoed from the Legislature’s operating budget. Edgmon says folks in the Interior echoed what he’s heard elsewhere around the state: the cuts are too big, and the Legislature should override them.
“The enormity of the governor’s vetoes is just beginning to take hold,” he said. “So, we’re just beginning to understand sort of the gravity of all these cuts.”
All five legislators in the bipartisan Fairbanks delegation say that’s also what they’ve been hearing. And they all said they agree with their constituents. The news conference mostly focused on the $135 million cut Dunleavy inflicted on the universities. That’s about 41 percent of the current state funding level. Republican Steve Thompson says that’s too much.
“This is a huge blow that’s going to be devastating, and it’s going to have huge, long-lasting effects,” he said. “And it’s just kind of disheartening to see that.”
Thompson is the senior member of the delegation, and he says he’s never seen so much concern from constituents in emails, phone calls and face-to-face interactions.
“We’ve all (gotten) upwards of 800 to a thousand emails that’ve come in to our offices,” he said. “Well over 90 percent are ‘Please override the vetoes!’ It’s amazing how many we got.”
Democrat Scott Kawasaki says it’s even more amazing because the feedback is coming in early summer, when most Alaskans are out and about in the run-up to the long July 4th weekend.
“There’s picnics and barbecues and people are out fishing,” he said. “At the same time, we’re getting thousands of emails coming in. Phone calls, people worried about the state of Alaska and what happens next under these vetoes.”
Kawasaki said the state has already cut some $195 million in funding from the university budget over the past five years. Republican Bart LeBon says there are some cuts that can be made to university system’s budget. But not this much, in one year.
“If we cut so much, so fast, I’m afraid we won’t recover,” he said. “I’m afraid that what we enjoy as a quality university that serves Alaska will not be here in five or 10 years.”
LeBon says he’s also worried about funding for K-12 education next year and beyond. Democrat Adam Wool also worries about the future if the cuts aren’t at least mitigated.
“We have an obligation to the state to provide for future generations,” he said. “… We need to keep educated people here, we need to attract educated people here. It’s good for business, it’s good for the state, it’s good for the community.”
Democrat Grier Hopkins says the cuts would actually triple the economic damage to the state, because they’d make the universities’ unable to match federal funding and other sources of revenue.
“This one cut of $135 million is going to have almost $500 million of negative economic impact on our state.”
The lawmakers all agreed it’ll be a challenge to get three-quarters of the Legislature to vote for the overrides – 45 of the 60 members. That’s much more difficult than the two-thirds majority required by other states and the Congress. Hopkins said Alaska is the only state that requires a three-quarters vote to override. Thompson says it will call for a unified, bipartisan effort.
“The Interior delegation is pretty well together on trying to make sure that we try to do everything we can to lighten the statewide effects of what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’ve got to work together.”
Later Wednesday, the lawmakers met with a packed house at the Pioneer Park Civic Center Theater. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner says about 700 people showed up, and of the more than 80 people who spoke, eight said they’re in favor of Dunleavy’s cuts.