Legislative Advocacy with Student Government

by Whalesong Staff

In the beginning of March, student leaders from across the UA system came to the state capital to meet with state legislators and advocate on behalf of students. Among UAS representatives were Student Body President Kali Spencer and Senator Calvin Zuelow. Whalesong staff reached out to find out how it went!

What was the purpose of the Juneau Advocacy Trip?

The Juneau Advocacy Trip is an annual event led by the Coalition of Student Leaders, the University of Alaska’s statewide student organization. Student leaders are flown to Juneau to lobby the legislature on UA priorities; it’s also an opportunity for student leaders to meet each other and organize in-person on statewide student issues. 

What did you discuss with legislators?

Our most important request to legislators was to take action to protect the Higher Education Investment Fund (HEIF), which is the fund source for Alaska Performance Scholarships and the WWAMI Program. Due to some complicated political and constitutional factors from the last two years, funding for those scholarships is no longer guaranteed each budget cycle unless the Alaska State Legislature or the court system takes action to protect the Fund. Student leaders also encouraged legislators to support the governor’s proposed budget increase for the university and a separate $20-million budget item for broadband upgrades for the university system. 

Can you elaborate more on the Higher Education Investment Fund?

First, some background: The state of Alaska has been running a budget deficit annually since oil prices crashed in 2014, which means the state is spending more money than it gets in revenue. To close the annual deficit, the Legislature has taken money out of the Constitutional Budget Reserve, essentially a big savings account for the state created in the Alaska Constitution. It takes a three-fourths vote of the Legislature to draw money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which has given the minority caucuses in the House and Senate leverage over the state budget. Another important detail is that the Legislature is required to pay back any money it takes out of the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR). Currently, the state owes the CBR more than $12 billion.

The Alaska Constitution also prohibits “dedicated funds,” which has usually been interpreted to mean the Legislature can’t create a fund dedicated to a specific purpose. Every appropriation has to be listed in the annual budget.

Every year since 2014, surplus general fund dollars not appropriated in that year’s budget are automatically swept into the CBR to pay back the money taken out. If those funds had been going to something the Legislature wanted to continue funding, it took the money back out of the CBR in a reverse sweep. As the reverse sweep is a CBR draw, it requires a three-fourths vote of the Legislature, including the minority caucuses in the Legislature.

Here’s where the HEIF comes in. For most of its existence, the HEIF has not been considered a dedicated fund and has not been subject to the sweep. This is because the HEIF was set up as an investment account with a one-time appropriation of general fund dollars. All of the scholarships and programs funded by the HEIF are funded with the returns on those investments, not with money out of the state’s annual budget. Last year, the Alaska Department of Law decided that even so, the HEIF counts as a dedicated fund and was probably unconstitutional. That decision meant the HEIF was now subject to the sweep, and suddenly WWAMI and Alaska Performance Scholarship funding were wiped out while the Legislature debated the reverse sweep.

The University of Alaska has since sued Gov. Dunleavy over that decision, but the first court that heard the challenge upheld the Department of Law’s finding that the HEIF was a dedicated fund. At the same time, HB 229, introduced this year, would further isolate the HEIF from the annual budget process by setting it up outside the general fund, labeling it as an endowment, and placing it under the care of the Alaska Student Loan Corporation. The Coalition of Student Leaders advocated for HB 229 with legislators.  

Why should students care about the items discussed with legislators and how do these items affect students?

Most Alaskan UA students probably benefit from the Alaska Performance Scholarship, and delays in receiving that scholarship left many students unsure of how they were going to pay for school last summer. If you’re a UA student interested in a career in medicine, the WWAMI program is the only way to pursue that without transferring to a different university system. The uncertainty in funding those programs is bad for students and the stability of the UA system. An increased university budget means that UA can finally start to rebuild after years and years of cuts, especially the $120 million budget decrease over the past three years.

What action steps are being taken by SGUAS-JC to ensure the trip was successful?

SGUAS-JC members were able to secure commitments to support our priorities from key legislators, including members of both the House and Senate Finance committees, and we are keeping an eye on the legislative session as it unfolds. The Coalition of Student Leaders is considering a retreat after the semester ends, which coincides approximately with the end of the regular legislative session. It would be an opportunity to assess progress on our priorities and plan strategically for the next conference to build on the momentum and goodwill we believe we have with the Legislature.

How does state funding affect the WWAMI program if that’s a multi-state program?

WWAMI is the medical student exchange program that serves Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho. It’s a partnership between those states; students can take classes at a home state university (in our case, UAA) and then complete their degree at the University of Washington School of Medicine. 

If Alaska doesn’t put up the money to support its end of the partnership, Alaskan students could lose access to WWAMI. Chad Hutchison, the University of Alaska Government Relations Director, said in a recent legislative hearing that the WWAMI board had considered removing Alaska from the program due to the uncertainty of our state’s support for the program. 

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