Discretionary or Transparency?

We had been waiting for it. Ever since the ASSU Executive announced its broad platform and its expansive overhaul of the cabinet, the logical question that followed was: How are they going to pay for all of it? With the recent passage of the 2011-2012 ASSU budget, now we know.

As is stated by the ASSU Constitution, the Undergraduate Senate (and the GSC) is formally responsible for the passage of the budget and therefore, by extension, for the financial oversight of the Executive. This institutional check led me to hope that the Senate would exercise its duties as a regulatory body, if not to impede the astronomical growth of the Executive, at least to demand a high level of accountability for all of its new initiatives.

Instead, the Senate approved a 31% increase in the Executive’s discretionary budget.

By definition, the use of discretionary budget is left to the discretion of both President Cruz and Vice President Mcgregor-Dennis, as opposed to a traditional line-item budget in which pools of funds are earmarked for specific uses. Invariably in government, a rise in discretion leads to serious transparency and accountability concerns. And while I agree that these tensions are inevitable and necessary on a certain scale, they should be contained and used appropriately.

A time during which the current administration is experimenting with size and responsibility on an unprecedented scale does not strike me as being ideal for increased deregulation and autonomy. On the contrary, the Senate should be pushing for more oversight over the budget to ensure that funds are being spent appropriately and not being squandered at the whim of the Executive.

In justifying the discretionary increase, McGregor-Dennis cited a need for flexibility, noting that it was hard to predict how much funding specific line items and events would require. I couldn’t agree more – but then, why stop there? Why not make the entire budget discretionary. Surely that would make things a lot easier for the Executive.

And the answer is simple: because the point of a budget is specifically to force the Executive to plan ahead and to allow the Senate to keep them accountable to their plans. It is more important that student funds be adequately accounted for than for the Executive’s job to be made marginally easier. This year especially, we should be asking for more discipline from our Executive rather than giving in to a vague (and ever valid) need for flexibility.

According to Mcgregor-Dennis, the ASSU’s newly created Division of Internal Review (DIR) will be responsible for auditing the Executive’s expenditures, thus bringing a semblance of transparency to the process. However, this only goes to show the redundancy of this year’s administration with the DIR doing the work that the Senate is constitutionally mandated to do. How effective this “independent” agency (spawned out of the Executive itself) will be is yet to be seen.

Additionally, the passage of this new budget creates a double standard within the ASSU that is hard to justify. When providing funding to students groups, whether they are Special Fees groups or General Fees groups, the Senate does not allow for any discretionary spending. Instead, the Appropriations Committee requires that every cent of student money that is appropriated to the group be linked to a specific line-item and be used for that specific purpose. Granted, the Executive operates on a larger scale than a single VSO and has more moving parts, but to what extent does that justify the completely opposite trends the Senate is exhibiting? I would argue not much at all.

I’m not advocating for the elimination of discretionary funding. Indeed, some discretionary funding for the ASSU Executive is necessary, which is why the Executives prior to this year already had a discretionary account. But such a drastic increase in that account – bringing it to over $17,000 for this year – is unwarranted and sets a dangerous precedent for future administrations and VSOs.

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