When there is nothing on the line

Seventeen student groups were not allocated any money in the first half of initial allocations by the Student Fee Committee for the next fiscal year. These groups have undergone a process the SFC calls “zero funding.”

“Zero funding” is a bunk process, bad for student groups applying for funding as well as for the SFC.

Zero funding is the process of allocating zero dollars to every line item in a student group budget, giving the student group the ability to appeal every line item in their budget during the appeals process. This is bad because it forces student groups to use the appeals process as the initial means of receiving money, causing them to lose their chance to an actual appeal.

Student groups have spent hours composing a budget, answering a questionnaire detailing the request and preparing for a hearing before the SFC. After weeks of work and anxiety, they are being denied funding.

It is the job of the SFC to evaluate and fund student groups to their discretion, as long as they use viewpoint neutrality. After initial allocations, the SFC should give meaningful feedback to student groups so they can have a successful appeal. With zero funding, this doesn’t happen. The SFC funding recommendations for zero funded groups are vague and arbitrary; there is usually little to no discussion of why the recommended amount was chosen by the SFC. The purpose of appeals is to give student groups a real second chance.

Zero funding hinders the SFC as well, but in a different way. The SFC is supposed to be autonomous in its allocation process, as well as free to allocate funds to the best of the committee’s ability. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The SFC is prevented from reaching its maximum potential of autonomy by their current guidelines, which have been the subject of controversy for several years.

Student groups banded together last year against the zero funding strategy, but the number of groups getting zero funding has increased significantly each year. Twelve groups were zero funded last year, and that number is already up to seventeen for this year, despite the process being only halfway done.

Student groups, inexperienced with budgets, face frustration and confusion trying to understand the zero-funding process and what to do about it.

The SFC guidelines state, “After the initial allocations are released, Programs meeting the eligibility criteria in Article III will have one week to submit a written appeal. The appeal will address only the specific reductions made from the original budget request.”

This line maintains that a group can only appeal what cuts the SFC makes to a given budget. For instance, if the only line item of personnel is reduced in a budget, it is the only item in the budget that can be appealed. Zero funding is the loophole that allows a group to reassess every thing in their budget.

As SFC Chair Katie Wylie suggested, the philosophy of the SFC has shifted. Over the last few years, major precedence was set in regards to zero funding. Most notably the process of zero funding was added into the guidelines.

The guidelines now say that “during the initial allocations, a Program’s request may be funded at zero with a recommendation to revise and resubmit their budget. This process is utilized to ensure that the Program may, on appeal, make monetary reductions to the areas of their budget that the Program feels necessary.”

This guideline moves the SFC in the wrong direction by shifting the responsibility of allocation to the group rather than the SFC.

Zero funding was a de facto policy that was written into the SFC guidelines to give groups the ability to adjust their own budget, rather than be dictated by the SFC, but it was never intended as standard operating procedure. Its intention was to give groups a second chance on budgets that needed a major overhaul, not minor adjustments.

Past committees have added more bureaucracy and less discretion rather than removing the guideline. This is a step in the wrong direction.

The increase of groups getting zero funded is symptomatic of larger problems with the SFC guidelines as a whole. The SFC needs to thoroughly review and reform their guidelines once the budget review process is completed rather than continuing to use flawed processes such as zero funding.

There is a severe problem with the guideline revision process as well. The timeline for revisions allows the current SFC to revise the guidelines for next year’s committee. This creates a very politicized and strategic revision of the guidelines. The outgoing committee sets the rules and regulations for the incoming committee.

This political strategy occurred last year. The outgoing committee placed a funding restriction for the incoming committee in the guidelines. The current guidelines now state that a student group’s budget cannot be changed by more than 25 percent from the previous year’s budget without three-fourths of majority support. This restricts the autonomy of incoming SFC.

The SFC guidelines need a major overhaul. The committee needs to commit to making politically neutral, long-lasting and sustainable changes to the guidelines. They need to reform the funding process to only use zero funding in necessary or extreme circumstances. They need to allow autonomy to the incoming SFC to make the necessary changes to the guidelines. This will prevent the SFC from using zero funding or politics to manipulate future Student Fee Committees. In addition, student groups will benefit from these guideline revisions. They will no longer be caught in the middle of the politics of guideline revisions or bunk guidelines that promote processes such as zero funding.

To view the guidelines or the SFC timeline, please go to the Student Fee Committee page on the ASPSU website at www.aspsu.pdx.edu.

Erin Devaney is a senior at PSU majoring in history. This is her fourth year at Portland State. She has worked in ASPSU, the student government at PSU for four years. In addition she chairs the Oregon Student Association Board of Directors and sits on the United States Student Association Board of Directors.