Empire Editorial: UA’s budget strategy is akin to climate change denial

  • Sunday, September 27, 2015 1:04am
  • Opinion

There are two ways to address an unpleasant truth: You can confront it, or you can deny it.

The University of Alaska has chosen the latter course.

Last week, university administrators presented their fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to the UA Board of Regents. The budget proposal, expected to be approved in November, calls for $27 million more from the state.

With the state facing a multibillion-dollar gap between revenue and expenses, and the state’s Office of Management and Budget saying the university should expect a $15.8 million DECREASE, the university system is preparing its budget based on an expectation that the Alaska Legislature will provide an INCREASE.

This is ludicrous.

Making matters worse, those figures only apply to the university system’s operating budget. The university is preparing a separate capital budget request of $134.8 million.

In a July memo, Pat Pitney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said state departments should expect a capital budget of no more than $150 million — not for the university system, but for the entire state.

Members of the Board of Regents said when they met in Juneau that it is important for the university system to make a statement and say exactly what it will cost to keep providing the services it offers today. It’s a negotiating tactic, they said.

That’s like trying to bluff in a poker hand where everyone is playing with their cards face-up on the table.

While meeting in Juneau, the regents repeatedly spoke about the need to maintain morale at university campuses and asked university chancellors how staff were feeling.

If the university’s regents are truly concerned about the morale of staff, they should stop imitating the ostrich and confront the problems they face.

Uncertainty, not budget cuts, inflicts the most harm to morale. Uncertainty unsettles your stomach and makes your heart hurt until you finally take the step to end it by searching for a new job, even if you don’t know whether you’ll lose your existing one.

A smarter approach by the regents would be to imitate the actions taken by the state’s municipal school districts, in particular the Juneau School District.

When Juneau schools faced budget cuts, district administrators did not attempt to deny the situation. They presented a budget proposal and explained in plain English what would be cut dependent on the level of state and municipal funding provided.

The University of Alaska should follow this approach.

Instead of proposing a budget based on wishful thinking, when regents meet in November they should approve a proposal that follows OMB’s recommendations and explain in plain English to lawmakers what further cuts will mean.

UA President Jim Johansen has suggested “vertical cuts” — the elimination of programs — rather than “horizontal cuts” — trimming the budgets of multiple departments.

Legislators may rethink their actions if they are presented with the reality that entire English or history departments will be budget casualties. Denying the truth will win the UA system no allies in the Legislature.

We declaim those who deny climate change. We should do the same for those who deny budget change.

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