College Dems, Republicans join in call for NAU president’s resignation


Northern Arizona University’s Young Democrats, College Republicans and several other student organizations called for university President Rita Cheng’s resignation Thursday after a state audit revealed in October that she used more than $40,000 from the university for travel expenses without proper documentation.

Aside from Cheng’s improper documentation of university funds, the students cited in a letter how their president has created a toxic work and learning environment, protected her own interests, increased tuition, reduced funding for counseling and health services and has displayed a disrespectful attitude toward faculty.

“Our grievances with her are not new,” Calli Jones, NAU Young Democrats president, said, explaining how the club did surface-level research in order to find a list of sources for their letter.

Their letter has been shared on social media over 70 times and has widespread support on NAU’s campus, Jones and NAU College Republicans President Robert Bean said.

Rita Cheng
Rita Cheng

But Kimberly Ott, Assistant to the President for Executive Communication and Media Relations, said Friday the letter has not been sent to Cheng directly. 

“We are disappointed that none of the groups . . . listed on the letter, who represent a collective membership of approximately 90 of the more than 30,000 enrolled students of NAU, asked to meet with President Cheng to air their views and engage in a dialogue,” Ott wrote.

Young Democrats and College Republicans joined together to publish the student body’s grievances, making the campaign to get Cheng to step down bipartisan and widespread on NAU’s campus.

The partnership between the clubs was “nothing dramatic,” Jones said. 

“We’re all students and we are all suffering,” she said. 

The partnership is the university’s first, but won’t be the last, Jones and Bean said.

“I want our campus and other campuses to know that two sides can come together on things that are wrong,” Bean said.

NAU students have seen discrepancies in Cheng’s leadership throughout this entire year, when “tuition was raised with no benefits for us,” Jones said. 

The state audit, released in October, reported that the lack of documentation of funds broke rules at both a university and state level which put public funds at risk for misuse, in turn making students question Cheng’s ability to run the university.

“It’s the misuse of funds” that hurts students the most, Bean said. 

The results of the audit have reached a state-wide level too, prompting Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, to propose legislation that would require public employees and officials to pay the difference in airfare upgrades if they accumulate one.

Bean explained that it’s not just the “misuse of funds” for travel expenses but the “extravagant expenses” elsewhere around NAU’s campus. Students, like Bean, are upset that Cheng’s focus on new university developments, like a new sports complex, without complete funding leaves the remainder of payments on students and their families.

In response to the audit’s conclusions, Bjorn Flugstad, NAU’s Vice President for Finance, Institutional Planning and Analysis, wrote that the university “appreciated the guidance […] and the opportunity this audit provided to examine and improve documentation practices.”

Ott wrote in an email that the conclusions of the audit “revealed a need for training to strengthen business processes and practices to ensure that transactions related to travel are properly documented,” which the university is doing. 

Student leaders at NAU said they would be surprised if Cheng decided to resign, but they hope that their letter is an effective message to the Arizona Board of Regents not to renew her contract in 2022, Jones said. 

Senate Republicans introduce budget bills

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The Senate completed the first step towards passing a budget on Monday while the House hit a snag.  

Republican leaders in the Senate introduced budget bills on Monday that would continue funding to state agencies for the next fiscal year, but not add new monies. 

This is a far cry from the $17.1 billion dollar budget proposal Gov. Katie Hobbs put out Jan. 13. Republican legislators called elements of Hobbs’ proposal non-starters.  

Now, it seems that Republican leadership is making its own move for a budget that has non-starters for Hobbs and her staff. 

“The governor has been very clear that her door is open for anybody who wants to work to find solutions for the people of Arizona, and a continuation budget is not working for the people of Arizona,” Bones said on Jan. 13. 

The Republican budget is a continuation of fiscal-year 2023 funding with a handful of small changes. 

Hobbs may not veto the entire continuation budget as soon as it hits her desk. Her spokeswoman Josselyn Berry said on Monday that Hobbs will use “all tools at her disposal, including line item vetoes if necessary.” 

Republican leadership argues that in a long session with split government, the Legislature and the governor could take many months to work on their bills and won’t get to a finished budget for some time. They say that passing a continuation budget now ensures that the government won’t shut down later on and will alleviate state agencies of the anxiety of waiting to see whether they’ll have funding.  

Democrats say that if Republicans get their continuation budget now, they’ll have no reason to work with Democrats on anything else for the rest of the session. 

The bills were read on the Senate floor on Monday afternoon during a committee hearing recess. Only a handful of members attended the first reading, and none of the Democrats were present.  

The House tried to read the mirror budget bills on Monday afternoon but were held up by technical difficulties and the absence of one of the members. 

House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, made a motion to suspend a House rule that limits representatives from being the prime sponsor of more than seven bills introduced after the fourth day of the session to allow Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, to sponsor measures related to the budget.  

None of the House members’ microphones were working on the floor, which forced members to either shout or approach the speaker’s desk to speak into the only working microphones on Monday.  

Democrats requested a roll call vote, and Biasiucci then withdrew his motion. House Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, explained to members the House didn’t have the technical capacity to go through the vote and have members explain their vote.  

“We can either attempt to do that or we can let him withdraw and we won’t deal with it today,” Grantham said.  

Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, was also absent Monday. Her absence cut the slim one-member Republican majority in the House, leaving them without enough votes to suspend the rule against a unified Democratic caucus. No other House members filed budget bills by Monday evening. 

The Senate scheduled a meeting of the appropriations committee for Tuesday morning where the budget bills will be heard.  

Senate Democrat spokeswoman Calli Jones said that the argument between Republicans and Democrats over the bills will likely happen at tomorrow’s appropriations meeting.