The elections are over and the rhetoric is dying down. The new administration has been chosen, but the question that remains in many students minds is, “So what? What does student government do for me?”
This question may be seen in the annual turnout. This year just over 1,000 of the over 19,000 students at Portland State voted. Under the constitution of the Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU), any student taking one or more credits is eligible to vote in the election and is therefore represented by the winners.
To the election committee’s credit, this turnout is no worse, and no better, than any previous year’s turnout. In fact it falls very close to the average, and this is despite a largely unadvertised election that was delayed by a month and also done online.
This accounts for about 5 percent of the student body, less than the turnout in national and state elections for 18- to 25-year-olds. The blame could fall on lack of voter education or on the commuter nature of the campus, which many blame for the apparent lack of involvement at PSU. That, however, is a question for another story.
The question here is, what does student government do at Portland State and why should students care?
Your student fees
are in their hands
Each term students register for their classes, then the bill comes due. But they pay more than tuition. They also pay a building fee and the student fee, which amounts to $127. However, Portland State’s student fee is the second lowest in Oregon’s state university system.
When all is said and done, the student fee committee controls millions of dollars that it distributes to student groups and to pay for other services that the university’s budget does not cover.
ASPSU is made up of a senate, an executive branch and a judiciary branch, but the student fee committee holds the fate of student groups in its hands. This year the committee approved over $5 million in support to student groups, Smith Center operations and support for athletics.
This fiscal power makes the student fee committee the most powerful student group on campus. There are over 70 individual student fee funded groups or funds, none of which could operate at current service levels without fee support.
How the money is spent
Each year, fee funded groups apply for funding from the fee committee, which consists of five members and is led by the student fee committee chair. This year’s chair was Shane Jordan. Next year’s will be Chris Moller, who served as a committee member this year.
Student groups must present line item budgets for the following year. These budgets must account for both revenue and expenditures.
The fee committee then debates the relative merits of the student groups’ funding requests. From time to time the committee sends a proposal back, asking the group to make adjustments or to justify an expense.
After these appeals have been dealt with, the fee committee holds its final deliberations and votes on the package as a whole, the entire disbursement. However, this approval is merely the suggestion to the student senate.
The senate votes on the budget. It is the single most powerful role the senate has in ASPSU. They must pass the budget for it to become official.
If the senate disagrees with the fee committee’s proposal they can send the budget back to the committee. However, in the past two years the budget has passed without objections from the senate.
Next, the student body president signs off on the budget. This is more of a figurative step because the president does not have the power of veto.
After that, university President Daniel Bernstine reviews and signs the budget before passing it on to the Oregon University System, the end of the road. The university system gives the final okay. This extra layer of bureaucracy is intended to ensure that the full spectrum of ideas and free speech are represented by the funding process.
Yeah, but what about
the rest of them?
The student fee committee certainly can push a lot of weight by managing a multi-million dollar budget, but they are not the only body in ASPSU.
The ASPSU president serves as the spokesperson for student government. The president sets the tone for the year, helps spearhead campaigns, appoints members to select committees and, sometimes, greets dignitaries that come to campus.
Early fall term, Bar Johnston, who served as president this year, welcomed presidential candidate Al Gore to the campus. Mary Cunningham, who won the spring election, will serve as president in the coming school year.
Emily Garrick will be the new vice president in the coming year. The vice president must be prepared to fill the president’s shoes if she is gone or unable to fulfill her position.
The vice president’s main job, though, is to run the senate. The vice president organizes and runs the senate meetings. The meeting agendas are formed by the executive committee, which consists of appointed members as well as the president and vice president.
Individual senators can amend the agenda, but that rarely happens. In fact the senate rarely met in the past year because it could not make quorum, which is sufficient attendance necessary to conduct official business. This means 50 percent plus one of the senate must show up for them to do anything at all.
Aside from approving the budget, the senate proposes and passes resolutions, which have no binding power on the university, but are meant to reflect the voice of the student body.
The senate also votes on recommendations from the evaluation and constitutional review committee.
The law of the land
The Evaluation and Constitutional Review Committee (ECR) serves as the judicial branch of student government. All constitutional complaints are handled by the ECR. The committee consists of three members from the senate and two members at large, which means they are directly appointed by the ASPSU president from the student body without being elected.
Over the past year the ECR has rarely maintained quorum, which for this body means that at least three members must attend a meeting where official business is conducted.
Last year, though, the committee tackled constitutional challenges to the elections guidelines and suggested changes in the constitution based on those complaints.
However, the committee cannot make unilateral changes to the constitution. They only make suggestions, which are then voted on by the student senate.
How do these people
get in office?
In some ways the elections committee also has a very crucial, yet limited role in student government. The committee oversees the promotion and execution of the spring and fall elections.
The spring election is the main event. The ASPSU constitution stipulates that the ASPSU president must appoint an elections committee in the fall. This committee then advertises the election and serves as the screen for candidate eligibility.Potential candidates apply to the committee, which then determines their eligibility. Candidates must be enrolled students and be in good academic standing.Once candidates are officially accepted, the committee has the job of promoting the elections and coordinating how polling will take place. This year elections have gone online. Previously they were tallied with written votes which were counted by Scantron and by hand.
The online elections gave instantaneous results. Security was handled by the office of information technology, which helped set the election up through the Banner system that students use to register for classes.
This year, the committee was not appointed until the week before winter term finals. This left the committee with very little time to advertise the election or to advertise that applications were being accepted.
In a last pitch effort to salvage the situation, the student senate voted to move the election back by a month. However, with the extra time, the turnout still fell around the average for previous elections.
Furthermore, Chris Moller, who won as student fee chair, ran unopposed for the position that determines the fate of student groups, athletics, Smith Center operations and more. About 5 percent of the student body chose the person who will control over $5 million of student fees.