Portland State’s student government is considering calling a special election to vote on several amendments to the ASPSU constitution targeted at creating more oversight of the Student Fee Committee (SFC).
The Senate Subcommittee on Student Cultural Affairs presented seven constitutional amendments to the senate for consideration Wednesday with a “do pass” recommendation. The Associated Students of Portland State University Senate will likely vote next Wednesday on whether to turn the amendments over to the general student body for a vote.
Senate sources say that though approval of the amendments is not a done deal, there is considerable support for them among the senators and passage is likely.
Should the senate refer the amendments to a general election, student body President Erin Devaney could call a special general election to occur as early as the end of fall term.
The eight-member SFC controls the annual allocation of over $8 million in student incidental fees to Portland State’s student groups, including the Vanguard, and athletics.
The fee allocation process, which occurs mainly during winter term, has been a sore point in recent years for several student groups, whose members claim that the fee committee has not followed its requirement to allocate funds in a “viewpoint neutral” manner. The viewpoint neutrality requirement means that the SFC must make decisions without regard to the ideology or opinions of students or student organizations.
If passed by the student body, the amendments would give student groups the ability to file complaints about SFC members who they suspect of not maintaining viewpoint neutrality to the student Judicial Board. The Judicial Board would gain the power to impeach SFC members found to violate viewpoint neutrality and forward student groups’ budgets to the senate.
Restructuring the committee and the allocation process was also a major goal for many members of the Devaney/Woon slate, which won a landslide victory in the student elections in March.
“The SFC has unchecked power,” said student senator Jamie Hogue. “Right now there is no way to hold the SFC accountable and this provides a way to do it.”
Another amendment would reverse an SFC guideline requiring a three-quarters majority vote to approve funding increases greater than 25 percent of a group’s annual budget. Instead, the increases would require a simple majority vote.
The student senate could also be given authority to reject any single item in the SFC’s proposed budget by a three-quarters majority. Currently the senate only has the ability to approve or reject the entire budget before sending it to the university president for approval.
Another amendment would lessen the number of student signatures required to propose constitutional amendments and allow amendments to the SFC guidelines and ASPSU bylaws by initiative. Instead of requiring the signatures of 15 percent of the entire student body, the amendment would require signatures from 15 percent of the students who voted in the last student government election, a number which is usually significantly lower.
Supporters say that the new regulations would provide a system of checks and balances for the SFC process that does not currently exist. Currently, a student group dissatisfied with its final annual funding amount has few avenues to contest the decision.
Because the student senate can only approve or reject the entire SFC proposed budget, the senate may be reluctant to do so, fearing that it may stall groups not involved in any controversy from receiving funding.
“We’re putting all of the burden of viewpoint neutrality on the SFC,” Devaney said, who added that she witnessed several instances of borderline neutrality while serving on the fee committee last year. “Rather than putting all that burden on the SFC, we should have a solid system of checks and balances.”
Of student groups that have been at odds with the SFC, none have been more vocal or controversial than the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), an activism group that campaigns for issues such as environmental protection and lower textbook prices.
Prior to 2003, the group received over $100,000 annually from the SFC, but since 2003 the group has been allocated a fraction of that amount.
This year OSPIRG is receiving $46,803 in student fees, far less than the $125,135 the group requested. SFC members said the reduction in funding was due to the group being unable to adequately explain how the money would be spent on campus.
OSPIRG members fought bitterly with the SFC last winter, arguing that the reduction in funds was due to a political bias on the committee against the group and saying the decision would cripple the group’s effectiveness, but to no avail.
Several people who were involved with OSPIRG during the group’s funding battles with the SFC are now student senators and the driving force behind the proposed constitutional amendments.
Hogue served as chairperson of OSPIRG last year. She and OSPIRG member Courtney Morse, now student senators, sit on the Senate Subcommittee for Student and Cultural Affairs. Several of the amendments were also written by senator Amy Connolly, who served as vice-chair of OSPIRG last year.
While Hogue and Morse say that they have not forgotten their experience with the SFC, the constitutional amendments are more about protecting other student groups from facing the same debacle rather than being focused on OSPIRG.
“Regardless of whether or not we’ve been involved in the organization, I would still want these changes,” Hogue said. “With the way things are now there is definitely potential for groups to be treated unfairly.”
“It’s about OSPIRG, but it’s about a bigger picture,” Morse said. “It’s about creating checks and balances.”
If the senate votes to refer the amendments to a student vote, supporters say they will push for a special election in hopes that students will approve them before the SFC reaches its budgeting meetings during winter term.
Constitutional amendments must be voted on in a general student election, but the annual election does not occur until March.
The ASPSU constitution is vague on exactly how a special election should be declared, stating only that the president is responsible for declaring them as necessary.
Before the amendments can be referred to the student body, the senate must approve them and the Judicial Board must review the language.
Devaney must also finish making appointments to the Elections Board and have them approved by the senate before an election could occur.
Because of the steps involved, the earliest an election could likely happen would be the ninth week of fall term, according to Devaney.
Should the special election occur, other initiatives could be tacked onto the ticket, including one proposed by Devaney opposing PSU renewing its contract with Higher One, the controversial supplier of the university’s ID card and financial aid disbursement services, in 2009.