Complications with Special Fees Reform

Posted by at 6:03PM

Brianna is currently the Chair of the Appropriations Committee of the ASSU Senate and a candidate for ASSU Executive. 

In a column published yesterday in The Stanford Daily, fellow student Jeff Mandell called for a reinvention of the ASSU Special Fees system. Jeff aptly pointed out the concerns of many Stanford students, which the ASSU has struggled to address for many years. The (1.8) million dollar question: How can the average student be tasked to determine whether student groups deserve and ought to receive Special Fees?

With the current Special Fees system, there is a committee that takes partial ownership of the process: the ASSU Undergraduate Senate’s Appropriations Committee. The committee vets groups’ budgets, reviews invoices and receipts, and works with Financial Officers in revising their Special Fees budget requests.  However, the committee’s involvement in the Special Fees elections process ends when a group gets their budget on the ballot. Once the budgets are submitted to the Elections Commissioner to be put up for a vote in the spring elections, the Appropriations Committee entrusts the Stanford community to vote yay or nay to determine whether their budget amounts are appropriate and whether the group should receive any student money at all.

In some cases, the process can become more complex. Though the Appropriations Committee can recommend an appropriate, reasonable amount, groups have the option to override the committee’s budget review process by petitioning 15% of the student body to put their original version of the budget on the ballot. For example, when the committee recommended that the Flipside eliminate a Segway purchase from their budget, the Flipside chose to override the committee’s recommendations with 15 percent of the student body’s support. (Lesson to be learned: Make sure you know what you are signing and what your signature really means!

The Special Fees override mechanism is a preventative measure to ensure that student voice is heard in the process (after all, students are paying!). The mechanism ensures that the committee does not unilaterally determine how to spend the $1.8 million annual Special Fees budget. Even though the committee does have the power to determine how much funding to allocate for smaller groups requesting less than $6,000/year, the General Fees budget of about $300,000/year for over 650 student groups is much smaller and less likely to be mismanaged.

Essentially, the Special Fees system is a form of direct democracy and the General Fees system is form of representative democracy. That said, as California politics have shown us time and time again, direct democracy is imperfect. Even in ASSU history, the Flipside showed us just last year that they can garner enough student support to acquire a Segway.  When students vote for it, elected ASSU leaders do not have any power to stop it. Yes, it was a joke, but that’s the weight of your vote in spring elections. 

As the campaign season emerges, candidates call for more student voice in the ASSU, yet the system that asks for the most student input each year is also the most criticized. How do we maintain student voice in this process so the student body doesn’t merely write the ASSU a blank check for $1.8 million dollars to allocate to whatever ASSU leaders deem fit? How do we ensure that students are heard in ASSU budget planning?  How do we strike a gentle balance between the opinions of “informed” elected representatives and the element of student voice?

With the ASSU Constitution now in review, this is the most ideal time to voice your opinions on the Special Fees system. We know what’s wrong with the system. But, how do we fix it? The ASSU would love to hear your thoughts.

Note: This is not a campaign blog – Brianna’s term as ASSU Senator has not concluded yet.  This post reflects her thoughts as a current ASSU Senator and what can be changed now regardless of her ASSU Exec candidacy.

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