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Student Government: Valuable Experience or Sideshow? April 11, 2009

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Joe Blanchard prepares for an interview after winning a seat on the Fairbanks Borough Assembly.  Blanchard is a past president of the UAF student government, or ASUAF.

Joe Blanchard prepares for an interview after winning a seat on the Fairbanks Borough Assembly. Blanchard is a past president of the UAF student government, known as ASUAF.

Sorry for my absence over the course of the last month.  I’ve been sidelined for a variety of reasons, most of which have to do with reporting I’m doing on the student government at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  I’ve been doing a series of stories for the UAF paper – the Sun Star – on the efforts of some members of the student senate to remove the student president.  The experience got me thinking about student government and its relation to “actual” politics.  Is it a jumping-off point where future politicians can get their feet wet, or is it a backwater where political science majors with no hope of a career in real politics can stroke their egos and hold rein over their own little corner of the universe?

More after the jump.

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Disclosure: UA Advocacy February 9, 2009

Posted by roothogreport in Legislature.
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I really should have mentioned this before, especially in the light of the Anna Fairclough story, but somehow I didn’t think to.

I have been selected by UAF’s student government (of which I am not a member) to take part in the University of Alaska’s advocacy efforts in Juneau.

The trip will take place later this month, and I plan to report on the process both here and for UAF’s weekly student newspaper, the Sun Star.  It should be an interesting trip for me, as I’ve never been to Juneau before.  It’s one thing to talk to legislators on the phone, and entirely another to talk to them in person.  I’ve heard it’s beautiful down there, and that they’ve been getting a ton of snow.  I’m excited.

In case you’re wondering what exactly we’re advocating for, the short answer is full funding for the university.  To expand a bit, we’ll be asking for increases in maintenance allocations (the governor’s budget only allocated $10 million of a requested $50 million for upkeep of existing facilities), funding for a life science research and teaching facility at UAF (which has been UA’s number one capital funding priority for at least five years and has thus far received no funding), funding for K-12 outreach programs (did you know that Alaska has the worst high-school-to-college matriculation rate of any state in the nation?), and a host of other budget issues related to education.

I don’t expect that this trip (for which the university will foot the bill) to substantially change my opinion on education issues- I’m already a pretty strong proponent of education funding, which is probably why I was selected to go- but I did think that anyone who reads this blog deserves to know about the trip.

The Fairclough Flap, And Why It Matters February 8, 2009

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I spent quite a bit of time chasing down the story on Rep. Anna Fairclough’s remarks about the University of Alaska and some of the views its students and faculty express.  I actually ended up speaking to all of the principal figures (except UA President, who is notoriously difficult to get ahold of… I guess there’s a reason he’s the highest-paid person in the state who has to disclose their salary), which is a testament to the accessibility of Alaska’s legislators.

Along the way, I found myself explaining the story many times in very simple terms to people who didn’t know the particulars, which was just about everybody.  What I found is that different people had different reactions, but there were a few common threads:

  • Just about every voting-age Alaskan, contrary to Rep. Fairclough’s assertion,  is acutely aware of the role that resource development plays in the state economy.
  • A lot of people, particularly conservative people, agree with Rep. Fairclough- not just about university students/faculty, but in general.  In some conservative circles, there’s a definite “love-it-or-get-out” sentiment with regard to development- that is, anyone who doesn’t support oil, gas, mining, and timber development shouldn’t get to share in the proceeds.
  • Many people I talked to seemed to focus on the development at the expense of the actual heart of the matter, which I see as being this: the reason this story blew up the way it did is that no matter how students feel or vote, there is something deeply wrong with making a link- even a speculative one- between political beliefs and education funding.  

Anna Fairclough touched that third rail, and although she probably won’t suffer much political consequence from it, she brought a dangerous idea out into the open: why not stifle your political enemies by cutting, or threatening to cut, their funding?

The issue is deeper than Fairclough on both sides of the political spectrum, and I feel like we’ll see more of it before we see less.  The trick is recognizing it when you see it, because it’s not always as obvious as, “So help me here in understanding how I should advocate funding more for an entire group that really doesn’t want to see development go forward?”

Are UA personnel anti-development? Should it matter? February 7, 2009

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In Tuesday’s State House Finance Committee meeting, Rep. Anna Fairclough (R-Eagle River) caused a stir when she asked University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton for help understanding why she should advocate funding the University when many students and staff oppose the development that provides the lion’s share of state revenue.

Fairclough is the chair of the UA Funding subcommittee, so many observers interpreted this as a sort of shot across the bow.  Fairclough denies that she meant the comments as a threat in any way.  I’ll write more on this soon, but for now, here’s a transcript of what Fairclough asked Hamilton:

Last year I had many passionate students come to my door and ask for support for the scholarship program that was out there- to support that.  And I had many passionate university instructors and staff from across the university.  And I found it amazing that there was a large disconnect in where the dollars from the state of Alaska comes from on a regular basis as far as the production of oil on the North Slope and how that is turned into revenue for the state of Alaska and in turn is invested in the university system.

  President Hamilton, if I asked university staff, the people who are educating our future leaders, if they support the Chukchi Sea development, Red Dog Mine, Pebble Mine, or any type of industry along those lines, a stereotypical response is that they are in opposition.  If I asked- or I did ask- I asked them when they came through the door, each different group- the students that were passionate- the same questions.  Whether they supported it, whether they thought their friends supported it. 

Predominantly, each of the student groups that came through said they opposed all the things that I just said- oil exploration, expansion… and they were concerned, in a very idealistic way, about our environment, which I greatly appreciated, but the question I ask you, is when you come to us asking for more dollars for the university and the system itself is creating- those that are engaged in the system may be creating an inability for us to provide those resources to you- what can I do to help clarify inside of that population that if you want more money, you can either choose- because I asked them if they wanted to tax themselves, too, and that wasn’t a good solution either. 

So help me here in understanding how I should advocate funding more for an entire group that really doesn’t want to see development go forward?

-Representative Anna Fairclough, 2/3/09

UA Board of Regents Meeting: Highlights December 3, 2008

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I went to the UA Board of Regents meeting on non-political business, but it was a long meeting, and I had the opportunity to hear what Martha Stewart (no, not that Martha Stewart), the university’s Director of Federal Relations, had to say about the new political reality for Alaska in Washington, D.C.  Here are the high points:

  • She thinks that Alaska won’t be badly damaged with regard to appropriations: although Stevens is gone from the appropriations committee, his best friend Dan Inouye (D-HI) is the chairman, and Inouye knows what it’s like for Alaska due to his friendship with Stevens and his experience as a senator from a non-lower-48 state.  Inouye is likely to remain friendly to Alaska.
  • With regard to our existing Senate committee appointments, she said that having Lisa Murkowski on the Energy & Natural Resources committee is going to prove very beneficial to Alaska as we work to restructure the U.S.A.’s energy economy.  She also mentioned that Mark Begich has put in for a variety of appointments, including Appropriations and Commerce.  She thinks it’s unlikely he’ll get Appropriations but Commerce is a definite possibility.
  • She characterized Stevens’ staff as “still in shock” after the defeat, and unsure of their future.  She’s not sure how many, if any, will be picked up by Begich for his staff, but that Stevens’ office on the Hill will close December 22.
  • Of Don Young, she said, “This is probably his last term in office.”  I didn’t have a chance to ask why she thinks that.  Young’s challengers have certainly improved in terms of credibility and posing a legitimate threat, but he won this past race pretty handily even if it wasn’t the 40% thrashing he usually delivers.  Perhaps Stewart is expecting that Coconut Road earmark to catch up to him in court?

That was basically it.  There were other highlights to the meeting, but for the most part they were university-related, not politics-related.  Enjoy your Wednesday.

Oh wait- I just remembered I have one other quote to relate.  University President Mark Hamilton apparently met with Governor Palin at the Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament in Anchorage last weekend- just prior to her trip to Georgia to campaign for Saxby Chambliss- and Hamilton had this to say:

“I reminded her that we [the University] have no money… she was very happy and very upbeat, and what that means in a political setting I have no idea.”

Sounds like politics as usual.

Remembering Bob Bartlett December 2, 2008

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Constitutional delegate Vic Fischer (center) talks to Bob Bartletts grandson (left) and historian Terrence Cole (right) at the Bartlett reception Monday night.

Constitutional delegate Vic Fischer (center) talks to Bob Bartlett's grandson (left) and historian Terrence Cole (right) at the Bartlett reception Monday night.

I’ve been busy for the last couple of days, with some assignments and otherwise, and yesterday I attended the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents meeting on the UAF campus.  It was an interesting meeting for a variety of reasons, and there were a few political tidbits I gleaned, but this post isn’t about that.  While I was there, I talked to UA public relations officer Kate Ripley (a former Alaska newspaper reporter), who was kind enough to let me know about a semi-exclusive reception in honor of E.L. “Bob” Bartlett yesterday evening at the UAF Museum.  My interest in history predates my interest in politics, so I jumped at the chance to attend.   (more…)