Groups protest fees bill

Jan. 28, 2010, 12:07 a.m.

Student groups are continuing to react to the special fees bill passed by ASSU leaders last week that will put more restrictions on groups’ ability to grow their budgets.

At last night’s Undergraduate Senate meeting — and throughout the week — many group members, especially financial officers, voiced opposition to the legislation and questioned the effectiveness of the new restrictions.

The legislation changes the process by which student groups who receive special fees can adjust their budgets from year to year. Previously, groups were automatically allowed to increase their budgets by up to 10 percent, plus an inflation adjustment, each year before being put on the spring ballot for approval. Now, groups are only allowed an inflationary adjustment, but may petition the student body for budget increases before the student vote.

Student Groups Speak Up

Several student groups, especially those whose funds come entirely from special fees, oppose the new rule.

Minh Dan Vuong ’11, the financial officer for Alternative Spring Break (ASB), wrote a petition that circulated e-mail lists earlier in the week, and that as of Wednesday had 368 signatures.

The petition calls for ASSU to re-evaluate the bill with more student input, claiming that the bill was written and passed without adequate warning to student groups and that the bill “incentivizes student groups to overstate their expenses.”

“While the Senate Appropriations Chair Anton [Zietsman] did send out a notice one week before the bill was voted on, there were no significant efforts to involve students or student groups in the formulation and writing of this legislation,” Vuong wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. He added that since funding and special fees are “highly technical,” groups need additional time to study the bill’s impact.

Other groups echoed frustration with the short notice before the bill’s passage. Makamae Kahawai ’10, the financial officer for the Stanford American Indian Organization (SAIO), explained that most groups didn’t understand the bill and its consequences, which she said was construed as tacit approval by ASSU.

“Quite frankly, comments made by Senator Katz in The Daily regarding the lack of student input is upsetting,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “People weren’t ‘screaming down their throats’ because no one really knew what was going on.”

Financial officers for student groups, especially those that receive a significant part of their budget from special fees, were also concerned about the bill’s adverse effects on group programming. Although the bill was written in part to “slow down spending” from student groups, many financial officers explained that the 10-percent budget increase helps them adapt to the rising costs of programming.

“Big-name speakers like the ones we have brought in the past, such as Salman Rushdie, Pervez Musharraf and Sarah Silverman all have very large speaking fees that rise above the rate of inflation every year,” wrote Greg Gaskin ’10, financial officer for the Stanford Speakers Bureau, in an e-mail to The Daily. He noted that the Speakers Bureau’s budget demands have also increased recently through their co-sponsorship program.

Vuong noted that ASB traditionally uses the 10-percent increase to cover new costs, such as car insurance for drivers, and to expand their program so that more students can participate each year as the organization grows.

Tommy Tobin ’10, financial officer for Stanford Project on Hunger, was “shocked” at the change, and called the bill’s restrictions “gratuitous.”

“The whole [bill’s] reaction to the economic downturn is stinginess,” he said. “There are other options for funding [besides special fees], but I don’t like the strings attached with alternative choices.”

While some groups stated that they would probably choose not to ask for a budget increase beyond inflation adjustment, those who do need an increased budget can petition the student body for approval. Whether they ask for increases or not, each group’s budget is on the spring ballot for student approval. Historically, nearly all special fees on the ballots are passed each year.

ASSU Senator Anton Zietsman ’12, chair of the Appropriations Committee, hoped the petition process wouldn’t hinder groups’ budgets, but would instead increase the control that students had over student group budgets.

“Hopefully, more group petitions will lead to increased dialogue on the campus about special fees,” he said.

“The way it was expressed in the petition was that the bill would effectively freeze all budgets and completely restrict funding,” Zietsman added. “The purpose of the bill is to sort of engage the student body and make the special fees groups accountable to the funds they’re receiving from the students themselves.”

Some student financial officers, however, felt that the petitions process might stop them from receiving approval they would have otherwise had.

“We will most likely not go out and petition for signatures,” Gaskin said. “Stanford students are very supportive of student groups, but it is still very, very difficult to get enough signatures just to get on the ballot.”

Kahawai and Georgia Andrews ’11, the treasurer for the Stanford Band, both noted that neither of their groups has had problems securing petitions for funding in the past.

In Defense of the Bill

ASSU Senator Alex Katz ’12, who wrote the bill, explained that its primary goals were to slow the rapid increase of special fees, which have risen from $96 to $119 quarterly, and which Katz said “puts a lot of pressure on students.”

If fees keep rising, “then the special fees system isn’t really sustainable long-term,” Katz said.

Winter quarter’s refund rates were the highest in the past seven quarters, with more students requesting refunds and a higher total amount requested.

The commonly heard concern among student groups, however, is that the bill will not address its main goal of slowing the rate of special fees growth. With the 10-percent growth limit gone, if groups feel that they can succeed with petitions and if they fear further increases in refund requests — and thereby a diminished number of students funding their activities — it is possible that they could ask for more money each election.

Katz said that since the process to increase budgets will now be “more difficult,” he hopes that fewer groups will seek increases and the special fees will be reduced. But student groups could see the increased difficulty as a reason to ask for higher budgets, offsetting the benefit.

“There’s a likelihood that special fees will increase significantly with this bill,” Tobin argued. “If groups realize that [the Appropriations Committee] will give them hell and more could come with students, they’re likely to ask for more money to make the process worthwhile.”

“Since the prospect of future funding increases are doubtful, under the new bill, student groups may overstate their expenses rather than taking a cut,” Vuong added, though his characterization of the bill as causing a “cut” is not strictly accurate.

The student body’s history of approving nearly all special fees on the ballot may also add incentive for groups to get on the ballot, despite the extra effort involved.

“I don’t think this bill will do much to reduce the amount of money in the special fees budget,” Andrews wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “As long as the student body continues to vote yes on all the budgets presented to them, student groups won’t have a lot to fear in terms of losing funding.”

The ASSU insists that the bill is a step in the right direction toward curbing special fees burdens on students and increasing accountability for student group budget increases.

“As is generally the case with VSO leaders, they fail to see the big picture,” Zietsman said. “They see the bill as it affects them and don’t see past that. The bill is the first step, not the final solution.”

Zietsman also emphasized that the Appropriations Committee approves all proposed budgets before they go on the spring ballot, which will serve as a “first check” against groups who might take advantage of special fees funding.

ASSU has also promised to make changes to the refund program and the petitions process to keep things under control, although more specific plans are still “in discussion.”

“Last year was nothing short of a fiasco,” Zietsman said, referring to a mix-up and a consequent extended deadline for the petitions period, which let even more groups get on the ballot. “This year, the deadline will be fixed.”

The bill was re-voted on and approved again at Tuesday night’s Senate meeting, where several student group financial officers expressed their dissatisfaction — which has not abated since then.

“The senators have not resolved the issues in the bill,” Vuong wrote after Tuesday’s meeting. “They have not adequately addressed how the bill will prevent refund rates from rising or how it will prevent exaggerated funding requests.”

Ellen Huet is currently a senior staff writer at The Daily; she joined the staff in fall 2008 and served one volume as managing news editor in fall and early winter of 2010-2011. Reach her at ehuet at stanford dot edu. Fan mail and sternly worded complaints are equally welcome.

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