Bethany Marcum, executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, responds to questions from the Senate Education Committee on Friday about her nomination to the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents. Her organization’s conservative policies, including backing a budget by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that proposed a 40% cut to the university system, made her the most controversial of the governor’s four nominees to the board. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Bethany Marcum, executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, responds to questions from the Senate Education Committee on Friday about her nomination to the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents. Her organization’s conservative policies, including backing a budget by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that proposed a 40% cut to the university system, made her the most controversial of the governor’s four nominees to the board. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Lawmakers question university board nominee who supported UA budget cut

Bethany Marcum, head of conservative think tank, hears from scathing doubters and glowing supporters

While Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, is nominating four longtime Republican donors to the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents, one nominee in particular is the subject of particular scruitny due to her leadership of a conservative organization supportive of large education spending cuts.

Bethany Marcum, executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, faced withering questions from legislators during confirmation hearings Friday, who noted among other things the organization’s support of Dunleavy’s budget in 2019 that included a 40% funding cut to the university system. She was also challenged about her actions as a member of the state redistricting board, which a judge ruled last year attempted illegal gerrymandering in secret that violated open meetings laws.

“Frankly, I was quite surprised that you wanted to be on the Board of Regents,” state Rep. Andi Story, a Juneau Democrat who’s been a member of K-12 and university governing boards, told Marcum, adding “to me the policy forum has been very negative toward our education system.”

Marcum at several points during both confirmation hearings denied having a hidden or overtly political agenda in seeking a seat on the board.

“While I am a conservative, I fully realize that as a member of the Board of Regents, my obligation is to the university,” she said. She also said she’s been told by attorneys she can continue working for APF while serving on the board.

The criticisms from some Democratic and independent lawmakers in Southeast Alaska prompted an equally adamant defense on her behalf by a Republican legislator from Anchorage, and public testimony was similarly divided with many expressing support or opposition for her appointment.

Marcum’s nomination and two other candidates considered by both the House and Senate education committees were both forwarded to the full Legislature for confirmation votes, while a committee hearing on the fourth was postponed for timing reasons. The 11-member board of regents, except for a student representative, serve eight-year terms if confirmed.

Questioning of Marcum took up the majority of both committee hearings that lasted a total of about four hours, with the early morning House committee meeting followed by the Senate during the afternoon. The question about APF’s support of Dunleavy’s budget cut was quickly raised by Rebecca Himschoot, a Sitka independent who is a member of the House’s Democratic-led minority caucus.

“It seems like the university has really struggled since that suggestion that you supported,” she said. “How do you feel about that now?”

Marcum said APF’s mission is to advocate for fixed limits on state spending, without assessing how funds should be spent for specific purposes.

“We’re not the ones who get involved in the politicial process in deciding where the cuts should be made,” she said. “I can tell you what amount you should strive for, but I believe that is your role as a legislator — or in some cases the governor — to make those decisions. I don’t have the background to make those decisions.”

Himschoot asked about a range of other goals and actions of APF, including Marcum handing out fliers opposing collective bargaining at state and municipal government buildings. Marcum said while she supports the right of unions to exist, “individuals should have the choice whether or not to join a union.”

Questions alleging APF uses misleading data to persuade policymakers and the public were raised by Story. She noted the policy group claims Alaska spends far above the national average on education, while UA studies conducted through the Institute of Social and Economic Research show the state spends less than average when cost-of-living adjustments are included.

The issue of misleading data was also raised by Himschoot, who noted an APF claim there’a a 5-4 ratio of administrators to teachers in public schools that is being used by many people to oppose an increase in education funding, but left unsaid is the administrators category includes bus drivers, nurses, kitchen workers and other non-office supervisory employees.

“The context of that piece of data is what matters,” she said.

The ongoing series of questions from Story and Himschoot provoked a defensive response from Tom McKay, an Anchorage Republican who called Marcum “extraordinarily qualified to serve.”

“Diversity is a word that’s thrown around a lot these days, but it seems to be me that its only acceptable to be diverse if you agree with the establishment’s opinions,” he said. “I would say that Ms. Marcum’s qualifications in the business community, doing research for the Alaska Policy Forum, her private sector viewpoint is something we should be welcoming at our university and not trying to push it aside.”

Also speaking in favor of Marcum’s nomination was Mike Coons, president of Concerned Conservatives of Alaska, who during public testimony claimed “a lot of good things came out of” the proposed 2019 cuts to the university.

“Sometimes putting that hammer over the heads gets results,” he said.

Coons called the questioning by Story and Himschoot a “wild, out-there socialist view,” and “they’re showing this whole idea of diversity…is only for those on the far left of the social spectrum.”

The procession of probing questions, including the topic of diversity, continued later Friday during the Senate Education Committee hearing.

“I was struck by a comment you made about being very distraught for Alaska children who are trapped in public schools,” state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, reminding Marcum of a conversation he had with her in 2014. “I keep going over that comment in relation to the notion to your being a member of the Board of Regents for one of our public education institutions. How should I understand that?”

Marcum said her comments reflect support for “school choice” proposals occurring nationwide, where parents have more freedom in determining where and what type of schools their children attend.

When asked by Kiehl what her vision is for the University of Alaska Southeast — which he said often gets little attention from the Board of Regents — Marcum said she isn’t familiar enough with the system yet to know its role beyond being a regional institution.

“I think that probably the most appropriate role I would say is that there are fields of study such as mariculture that are going to be uniquely southeastern and most appropriately handled by the southeast campus,” she said, offering a more specific answer than the other two nominees who were asked the same question by Kiehl during the afternoon.

Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the committee, referenced the redistricting controversy in asserting Marcum and other nominees don’t seem to represent a diverse section of Alaska.

“I am concerned about the current slate of the Board of Regents that are being put up for confirmation as they are not from a diverse swath of Alaska. We don’t see anyone coming from Western Alaska,” Tobin said. “I’m just very concerned as it seems to be the Board of Regents are really concentrated on a particular view and voice.”

Among the residents offering support for Marcum in that area was expressed by Craig Richards, an Anchorage attorney who in written testimony stated she will be an effective “funding advocate and transition leader.”

“I have observed that Ms. Marcum objectively and thoroughly considers all the information provided before forming opinions and is open to revisiting those opinions as data and circumstances change,” he wrote. “Ms. Marcum is respectful of those with different ideas and viewpoints and, in my experience, communicates professionally and thoughtfully.”

The Alaska Landmine reported last week Dunleavy is essentially telling to Legislature to approve Marcum — or else.

“A source in Gov. Dunleavy’s office confirms that if the Legislature rejects Bethany Marcum for the UA Board of Regents, Dunleavy will appoint Tuckerman Babcock as a recess appointment,” the Landmine reported. The recess appointment referrs to Dunleavy’s former chief of staff whose numerous controversial actions included demanding hundreds of state employees resign and submit loyalty oaths to be considered for rehiring, which a judge found unconstitutional.

“That would give Babcock at least nine months unless the Legislature calls a special session to reject him,” the Landmine noted about the recess appointment.

Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for Dunleavy, stated in an email Friday “I have no information on this” when asked about the Landmine’s report.

Dunleavy’s other nominees are Dennis Michel, president of a Fairbanks general contracting company who has worked extensively on the North Slope; Joey Crum, head of a vocational training company near Palmer and brother of Department of Revenue commissioner-designee Adam Crum; and Paula Harrison, an Anchorage human resources manager.

All are registered Republicans and and donors to Republican candidates, including Dunleavy. None of the other nominees received the same level of questioning as Marcum, although Michel faced inquiries from some House committee members about his “vision” for the university after stating he is largely unfamiliar with its goals since he’s only attended one regents meeting.

“I just can’t narrow any particular issue down because I don’t have enough knowledge,” he said. “If I make a statement that’s not accurate, I don’t like to do that. I just don’t do that in business…a year from now I can answer more questions, but I just don’t have the answers for you right now.”

McKay expressed support for Michel’s nomination, citing his work with companies on the North Slope.

“It looks like you have a good a good level of experience with our state’s most important industry and what they contribute,” McKay said. “So I’m glad that you’ll have offered that perspective to the university because I think it’s important that we have a vibrant private sector and that the university participates in supporting a vibrant private sector because I think they have to go hand in hand.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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