On Jan. 19, 2012, Gov. Sean Parnell said it was time for the state to make a commitment to future generations of young Alaskans.
He asked that the $400 million set aside in 2011 to pay for scholarships be placed in a separate category of its own, so that in the years and decades ahead, families could count on their children getting scholarships if the kids worked hard in high school.
It wouldn’t do to force the scholarship program to compete for funding every year with all other items in the state budget, the governor said.
The Constitution prohibits “dedicated funds,” but designating the money for state scholarships would be a worthy half-step and a reminder of a long-term commitment.
“This legislative session, let us take the $400 million that we set aside last year, and build a strong fence of moral obligation around it,” Parnell said in his State of the State speech seven years ago. “Let us create a fund for that money so the fund’s earnings can pay for these scholarships for future generations. Send our students this unmistakable message: If you keep your end of the bargain in the classroom, we will keep our end of the bargain in this chamber.”
He said young people working to earn scholarships “represent the future of our state.”
It was a positive vision by Parnell and the Legislature, a commitment to Alaska’s students to create a “long-term sustainable funding stream” to encourage them to accomplish more. Parnell signed the bill on Sept. 13, 2012 in Unalaska.
About 2,000 students a year have been eligible for the Alaska Performance Scholarship. The program has been a great success and helped thousands of young people attend the University of Alaska and other institutions in Alaska.
The bill won unanimous support in the Legislature in 2012, including backing from Reps. Tammie Wilson, Lance Pruitt, Mark Neuman, who are among those who now say it is time to break the bargain. The Legislature has used some of the money for other items from time to time, but the central purpose has remains in place.
They back the governor’s move to put the $350 million left from the endowment million into the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which means the scholarship program is on the soon-to-be extinct list. Funding the scholarships this year obscures the political reality that in years to come, the commitment will fade away for good.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, through the work of temporary budget director Donna Arduin, has made it clear that he wants the endowment to go away. His Republican allies in the state House, led by Pruitt, husband of Dunleavy’s communications expert, have blocked the technical action required to preserve the education endowment.
About 12,000 students got notice this month that the scholarships are on hold. The blame belongs to Dunleavy and the minority Republicans in the state House who withheld their votes on the “reverse sweep.”
They want Alaskans to forget the “strong fence of moral obligation” that was to protect scholarship money for generations.
Dermot Cole can be reached at email@example.com