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Modern Manners: Special Fees process needs reinventing

The Special Fees process exists so that student groups that want more than $6,000 in annual funding from student government can take their requests directly to the student body in the spring quarter elections. There are three ways to get on the ballot: for groups already receiving Special Fees (and meeting a few other requirements), approval of their budgets by 60% of the Senate is enough, while other groups must collect the signatures of 10% of undergraduates plus Senate approval, or they can bypass the Senate completely with signatures of 15% of undergraduates.

 

The more groups that receive Special Fees, the more students are charged to supply the funding. If there were only a few student groups that needed Special Fees, such that each application could be scrutinized by campus media and the voters, then perhaps the system we have would make sense. However,

 

 

In last year’s elections, 44 student groups’ petitions for undergraduate Special Fees were approved by voters, while two were rejected. The rejects, Stanford Chaparral and The Claw Magazine, both missed approval by less than 2 percent of the vote. In a brilliant act of satire-turned-truth, The Stanford Flipside received funding approval with 69 percent of the vote, despite flaunting its intention to spend the bulk of the money on a Segway in its weekly satirical publication, purportedly for “distribution.” Unfortunately, it appears that the stunt wasn’t enough to change the system. Next year, maybe they should ask for a hot air balloon or a camel to further revolutionize their distribution efforts.

 

Clearly, many of the groups that are currently petitioning to be on this year’s Special Fees ballot will have little reason to fear rejection by the student body. Accordingly, they do not have much incentive to be economical. In the majority of cases, asking for $60,000 when $50,000 would suffice is not going to put a group’s approval in jeopardy. The result is unnecessary spending that comes out of students’ pockets. Even worse, the lack of accountability reduces incentives for organizing great campus events. Groups would work harder if they thought that their future funding depended on proving their worth.

 

The problem is not that student groups are corrupt or wasteful. When you are heavily involved in a community or a cause that is important to you, it is only natural to use all available resources to fulfill your vision, and it is better to have money left over than to have asked for too little. I myself am a financial officer for STAND, a group that fights against genocide and other mass atrocities. Though we do not make use of Special Fees, I know from experience how tricky it is even within the General Fees system to balance thriftiness with the need to ensure that one’s group has enough cash to perform its functions. In the Special Fees system, where a single all-or-nothing vote determines budgets a year in advance, the stakes are much higher.

 

When I vote on Special Fees, I feel like I have to assume that groups would cease operations if they don’t get approval. I don’t know if this is true or not–many groups do have other sources of funding, and indeed the Chaparral still received funding from the ASSU. Like about 70 percent of voters, I end up voting yes for nearly every group because, being unfamiliar with many of them, I’m simply not qualified to decide which group should get the money and which shouldn’t. It’s practically an invitation to be prejudiced. If I vote for the Black Student Union, the Jewish Student Association and the Queer-Straight Alliance, how can I possibly justify turning down the Stanford American Indian Organization or Stanford Women in Business, given that I know nothing about how any of these groups operate?

 

Granting large sums of money to student groups is too complex a task for voters. It’s ridiculous that we’re expected to gauge, in a few minutes of spare time, which five- and six-figure requests are valid and which are excessive. As hard-working students, we simply don’t have the time or the interest to pore through forty-plus budgets, and besides, the budgets are so vaguely written that we still wouldn’t learn anything. To accurately evaluate requests, the group leaders who write them need to be questioned line-by-line on how they plan to use their funding and why they can be trusted to do a good job.

 

We need a trusted student committee that can take ownership of the entire Special Fees process. Besides just voting proposals up or down, the committee could work with student groups to revise their budgets to appropriate spending levels. A process overseen by people who actually care about budgetary details is sure to save money over the current system, which revolves around voters who would probably prefer that someone else did the job.

 

Think you know how to fix Special Fees? Tell Jeff your idea at [email protected]

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