Student Government Budget Needs Close Inspection

Rumors of a student organization fee increase have been swirling through the chambers of MSU’s student senate since the end of last semester. An email that the Office of Activities and Engagement sent out last week to various student groups put out feelers, asking if the clubs would be supportive of increasing this fee in order to increase their own operating budgets.

Before ASMSU considers levying higher student fees on top of the almost $700 that full-time students already pay in various other fees each semester, senators ought to ensure they’re doing the most with what they already have. While the senate doesn’t directly control all of that money, they do have the potential for significant say in everything from an athletic fee — paid whether or not you play sports — to the SUB fee — a building for which students pay nearly half the operating costs.

All told, student government will manage roughly $1.8 million for the 2013 fiscal year, with the ability to directly allocate about $1.06 million of that through the activity fee, which will cost each of us $79.38 next year. (The rest of the $1.8 million total is generally already line-itemed out by other specific fees).

Another important factor in deciding whether or not to raise fees is the 5 percent tuition increase this year, followed by another 5 percent next year. In 2011, a tea party-dominated Montana Legislature refused to fund higher education adequately, forcing the Board of Regents to increase tuition by 5 percent each year for the next biennium. With students already burdened by tuition increases, the senate needs to seriously weigh the benefits of additional fees.

Instead of raising fees at a time when the cost of education has been rapidly increasing, senators should seek alternate methods to fund student organizations. While many of the fees are small on their own, adding together mountains of them is what saddles students with $1,400 in fees each year.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this debate is ASMSU’s current use of student fee monies derived from the Activity Fee. Broadly, we can break their budget into four categories: 1) classified committees, 2) student-run committees, 3) dollar committees and 4) “other.”

Let’s save the first example for last — it’s the most interesting. Student-run committees are exactly what they sound like: an ASMSU committee run by students. These committees include Arts and Exhibits, Campus Entertainment, the Procrastinator Theatre and more. Dollar committees technically fall under the senate’s authority, but operate autonomously, relying on a relatively steady fee assessed every semester. The Exponent, for example, just transitioned to a dollar committee this semester. The student organization fee, the item at the heart of the increase talks, currently functions as a dollar committee and cost students $6.20 in the 2012 fiscal year. Supplemental and discretionary funds make up the ambiguously named “other” designation.

Classified committees, unlike the others, are run by a professional employee who has been hired to perform that job. For examples, think of the Leadership Institute, the KGLT radio station or ASMSU’s Day Care Center. Hiring a professional might not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of university finance — providing that continuity in the student turnover cycle of four (or five) years even makes a certain amount of sense.

Students, however, should still be rightly skeptical of the professional committees because they garner a staggering 70 percent of ASMSU’s budget. That’s nearly $740,000. Of that substantial wad of cash, over $400,000 is spent exclusively on the salaries of a few professional employees — excluding retirement, workers’ compensation and anything that’s not pure salary.

To be sure, most of these organizations bring in additional funds on top of what they receive from student government, so suggesting that all of the $400,000 in salaries comes from student fees is not necessarily accurate. Students can, however, raise a larger question by noting that committees run by professional employees receive roughly 70 percent of ASMSU’s entire budget. Is this an appropriate use of student fees? Where is the student leadership that the administration frequently touts if an entire organization is shepherded by a salaried, professional employee and not a student?

Good arguments can be made both for increasing student leadership through emphasizing student-run organizations and for the continuity that a professional employee provides. In the middle of both extremes lies a healthy middle ground, but I’d wager that the overwhelming majority of students don’t have a clue where their money goes. While much of that blame falls on unengaged students, some too must fall on the shoulders of a student senate that, while making real progress in recent years, often functions as an insulated microcosm of campus.

Where your student fees are going — and why they might be increased — is a question worth discussing. And it’s something the senate needs to weigh seriously before taking action.