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Regents consider abolishing fee that supports students’ association

Regents consider abolishing fee that supports students’ associationThe Arizona Board of Regents is leaning towards abolishing a student fee that funds a politically active non-profit that contributed $126,806 for the passage of Proposition 204.

Regents said they aren’t so concerned that the group, the Arizona Students Association, is involved in the ballot measure.  But they questioned whether it is appropriate for the board, which governs Arizona’s three universities, to levy fees on students to pay for an organization that is independent from the university system.

The board has only about a month to decide whether to continue collecting the $2 fee each student pays each semester, since tuition bills go out in early December. Students can opt out of the fee, which generates roughly $540,000, a year, but they must submit a request for a refund by the 21st day of class.

“My sense is the regents are moving in a direction of saying that this isn’t something we should be participating in,” said Rick Myers, chairman of the Board of Regents.

A 2008 referendum, which was held on the three campuses to increase the fee from $1 to $2, described the group as “a voice of Arizona’s public university students on the local, state and national level.” The referendum went on to say the group works to make education affordable and accessible by running grassroots campaigns and advocating to elected officials.

Rhian Stotts, an ASU graduate student and member of the Student Association board, said the question of abolishing the fee should go to a student vote.

“The implementation for the fee came from students and was approved by students and that process needs to be followed for any type of removal,” Stotts said.

She said the loss of the funds would force the organization to dramatically change the way it operates.

The student group recently came under the scrutiny of the Goldwater Institute, which published a Sept. 27 investigative report questioning the legality of the six-figure contribution to Quality Education and Jobs, a group pushing the passage of Proposition 204, a ballot measure that would permanently extend a 2010, voter approved 1-cent state sales tax.

The Goldwater report quoted legal experts who said the U.S. Supreme Court found in a 2000 ruling that the First Amendment allows a public university to charge its students a fee to fund a program promoting student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral.  But the unanimous court said the viewpoint neutrality could be undermined to “the extent the referendum substitutes majority determinations.”

Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation for Goldwater Institute, said the conservative organization is in the early stages of developing a lawsuit challenging the fee. He said it is too early to say who would be the defendant, but Goldwater is going to send a letter to the Board of Regents sharing their legal concerns about the use of the funds.  

Myers said regents were concerned about the fees before the Goldwater Institute published its report.

Regent Dennis DeConcini said former and current members of Arizona State University’s student government and the Arizona Students Association have long been at odds over the use of the fees and other issues, but the Goldwater report brought the issue to a political head.  

DeConcini said he has received a flood of complaints from both sides and he wants to address them in a yet-to-be scheduled meeting between regents and student leaders.

Myers said the Board of Regents has several new members and only recently has anyone asked the question of whether it is appropriate for the board to assess and collect the fee.

A special task force by ASU’s Undergraduate Student Senate also concluded Oct. 23 the student association should be removed from the university’s Tempe campus “financially and otherwise.”

The task force concluded the student association overstepped its mission statement by contributing to the ballot measure, and the group lacks transparency in how it spends its money.

Student leaders from the three universities formed the student association in 1974. The board of regents in 1977 adopted a policy on the association’s structure and financing.

The organization was funded with a flat $35,000 taken from student fees until 1997, when students from all three universities overwhelmingly passed a campus referendum establishing a $1 fee per student per semester.

A 2008 campus referendum also passed, increasing the fee to $2.

Myers said while students can opt out, any rarely do, and it is safe to assume most students don’t really pay attention to it.

Regent Greg Patterson said he is concerned the board has a fiduciary interest in a large pot of money and has no knowledge of how it is spent or authority to do anything about it. 

He said the question is whether the board wants to pick one private corporation and fund it, whether it is a politically active student group or a charity organization like United Way.

“I think the answer is no,” Patterson said.

Myers said the regents’ staff is gathering information for how to proceed. He expects the board will decide whether to drop the fee at a special meeting in the next few weeks. A policy change requires two meetings, so there would have to be another one immediately after to adopt the change, he said.

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