ASSU considers, debates special fees reform bill

Feb. 11, 2011, 2:04 a.m.

Special fees reform is on the minds of ASSU representatives, as a bill for significant reform is making the rounds from the 12th Undergraduate Senate (UGS) to the Graduate Student Council (GSC), and back again.

The UGS will re-vote this coming Tuesday on special fees reform legislation originally passed at its last meeting, both to incorporate friendly amendments adopted at Wednesday’s GSC meeting and to respond to questions of unconstitutionality surrounding how the vote was conducted on previous notice.

The current legislation is a more comprehensive version of a bill passed on Jan. 18 by the Senate, but rejected by the GSC on Jan. 19. The GSC discussed the new version of the bill Wednesday, but declined to vote due to issues of constitutionality and lingering concerns about the bill’s efficacy at solving problems in the special fees process.

While most student groups receive funding from ASSU Senate and GSC general fees collected from students, Volunteer Student Organizations (VSOs) must rely on special fees for their larger budgets. As stipulated by the 11th Undergraduate Senate, groups must petition for signatures from 10 to 15 percent of the student body to be on the special fees portion of the spring ballot if they wish to grow their budgets by more than inflation, which is approximately 1.5 percent. The bill under discussion would return the joint by-laws to the way they were before, allowing student groups to grow their budgets up to 10 percent plus inflation without petitioning.

The bill, authored by Senate Chair Michael Cruz ’12 and Appropriations Chair Rafael Vazquez ’12, contains three main areas of reform: allowing student groups to grow their budgets more without petitioning, changing the reserve tax system on group savings to a 100 percent formula instead of a tiered system and releasing refunded students’ information to group leaders.

The bill would also set a timeline for the funding committee chairs to decide on special fee policies.

“Critical reform includes getting dates and deadlines specified in the ASSU bylaws,” wrote GSC Funding Committee Chair Krystal St. Julien in an e-mail to The Daily.

She added that the Senate and GSC should “not just rely on the new elections commissioner to tell us when to do everything every year.”

The legislation was passed quickly at the Senate’s Tuesday meeting with little discussion, in part because of timing pressures as election season approaches. Declarations of intent for special fees groups opened at 12:01 a.m. this morning. The Senate will hold an “Appropsathon,” a 24-hour series of meetings with special fee groups, from Saturday to Sunday during Dance Marathon. Recent legislation pushed the new deadline for the submission of special fees declarations of intent, along with itemized budgets, to Feb. 20, five days after the original deadline.

Special Fee Refunds

Much of the debate around special fees reform is centered on the refund rate, the number of students who choose to request their money back from groups on a quarterly basis.

The 2009-10 year saw an unprecedented rise in refund requests, causing the 11th Undergraduate Senate to adopt its legislation. Cruz pointed to higher full refund requests this past fall and questioned whether the legislation was effective in stemming increasing costs. The 11th Undergraduate Senate decreased the period for requesting refunds from three to two weeks.

Cruz said he does not expect the special fees funding as a whole to rise under the new legislation and does not expect the refund rate to decline.

Vazquez said he sees the legislation as geared toward VSO financial officers, “to let them know that we’re listening.”

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Vazquez said.

He added that he doesn’t see a trend in recent refund rates, but hopes the refund rate will drop if the legislation is adopted.

“It will make the special fee system easier to navigate, more transparent and more accountable for everyone,” wrote former Alternative Spring Break financial officer Minh Dan Vuong ’11 in an e-mail to The Daily.

Others, such as GSC co-chair and doctoral student Justin Brown, say that history shows that the changes made by the 11th Undergraduate Senate work and the previous mechanism caused problems.

“We know what works–the current system,” Brown said.

For groups with budgets as large as $65,000, a 10 percent increase is more than the $6,000 cap on total funds for ordinary student groups.

“The problem is that a ten percent increase is pretty significant. The tax on students would increase,” said Anton Zeitsman ‘11, appropriations chair of the 11th Undergraduate Senate.

Cruz described the bill as “opening one valve and closing another for a net improvement for special fees groups and for Stanford.”

It would make “the process easier, allow[ing] for sustainable growth that is keeping in line with increasing costs,” he said, saying that costs to student groups increase faster than inflation.

“We’re subject to market forces that inflation doesn’t take into account,” Cruz said, adding that a full explanation is “above my pay-grade.”

Vazquez stressed that the group budgets would still need to be approved by the respective funding committees before going on the ballot.

One aspect of the legislation Cruz and Vazquez said would serve to counteract the lower barriers to budget growth would be the replacement of the current, tiered system of reserve taxes. Under the legislation, if student group reserves exceed their expenditures for the previous year, 100 percent of the excess would be applied as part of their special fee funds, decreasing the total amount budgeted by the ASSU to the group for the next year.

Release of Names

A controversial part of the legislation is the release of information–the names, SUNet IDs and SUIDs of students who requested special fees refunds–to VSO financial officers, presidents and key officers. This change would allow group leaders to ensure that students who request refunds from their group, and are thus ineligible for the group’s services, do not attend their events.

Until the 11th Undergraduate Senate overturned the policy last February, VSOs could request the SUIDs of students who requested refunds.

“I’m most excited about the release of names,” Vazquez said, adding that student groups “have a right to know who took money away from them.”

Zeitsman described the policy of giving student names to group officers as “nearly unenforceable.”  While no mechanism is proscribed in the bill, the enforcement would be up to the discretion of the financial officers.

Brown said several GSC voting members were uncomfortable at Wednesday’s meeting about the release of names, viewing it as a “breach of privacy,” even though the University’s legal counsel has given the go-ahead.

Brown also said he feels many GSC members believe “it will not go over well with the student body because of privacy” concerns.

The “Fundamental Problem” with Special Fees

As the back-and-forth legislation shows, debate over the complicated special fees funding process is not new. What recent debate allows, however, according to Brown, is a look at the fundamental problems plaguing the process, on the existence of which, at least, all representatives seem to agree.

“The fundamental problem is everybody can vote on a special fee group [in the spring election] and then request a refund [on a quarterly basis],” Brown said. “It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

“That’s when you get into the fiscal crisis that happened last year,” Brown said.

“The bill that is being presented does not fix that.”

Brown said he is not sure yet whether this shortcoming will affect his vote.

“This is a learning opportunity for every student on campus, regardless if they’re an American citizen or not,” Brown said. “It means you need to be cognizant of the policies being made.”

Zachary Warma ’11, an 11th Undergraduate Senator and Daily staff member, said he sees the legislation as “inherently flawed” which is “dangerously infringing on people’s rights.”

Warma said he sees the debate as reflecting fundamental flaws in the ASSU. “The ASSU doesn’t do advocacy — what the ASSU is about is money,” he said.

Warma added that he views the legislation as a special interest bill, supported by Senators elected by particular VSOs and endorsing bodies, such as the Students for Color Coalition (SOCC), which won 10 seats in the 12th Undergraduate Senate.

“It’s frustrating to see [different] private interest groups dominate the government alternating years,” Brown said of the recurring debate.

“Governments like this are run by special interest groups — that’s true everywhere,” Brown said. “What we shouldn’t see is one group of individuals with a special interest dominate the pockets of those who don’t agree with them.

Brown added that he views all undergraduate “political parties” negatively, regardless of their name or agenda.

“We’re Stanford students,” he said. “We can do better than this.”

Kathleen Chaykowski contributed to this report.

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