Special Fees Moving in the Right Direction

*The right steps have been taken to repair a badly broken process; further reforms are needed to continue to move in the right direction. *

The Special Fees process enables student groups to levy the student body, and have been the subject of much controversy over the past three months. Recent reforms aimed at repairing this flawed system deserve support, but our student representatives should be encouraged to continue to innovate and ensure that the system remains sustainable.

The Process

A brief explanation of this rather convoluted process is in order: late in Winter Quarter, students groups who wish to appear on the Special Fees ballot in the spring create applications and submit them to their respective legislative body (graduate or undergraduate). The legislative body decides whether or not to approve this budget; depending on their decision and whether the group had been voted “Yes”  the previous year, it may need to petition the 10-15% of their respective population.

If a group meets the criteria for appearing on the ballot, the student body votes on the proposed fee in the spring. If the fee receives >50% support by at least 15% of the student population, then the fee is levied upon the *entire *student body each quarter the following year.

For full disclosure, there is an alternative funding process known as the General Fee (also levied upon every student), which can be applied to throughout the year; a group cannot subscribe to both sources of funding, and the General Fee limits a group to $7,000 per year.

The Problems

The first problem is that Special Fees (particularly for undergraduates) have skyrocketed over the past 5 years, over X%. There are multiple reasons for this: first, student groups *previously *have been able to increase their budget up to 10% + inflation over the previous year’s amount, without re-petitioning the student body for ballot placement.

The vast increase in Special Fees has partly contributed to an increased refund rate, which came to a head this Winter Quarter, with 1132 refunds requested (an increase from 408 the previous winter). This has been problematic, because historically the ASSU has provided the full budgeted amount to student groups, regardless of the refund rate (a buffer fund helps it accomplish this, but winter quarter made a large dent in this fund), resulting in quite a dilemma.

Lastly, as an observational note: nearly every undergraduate Special Fee is passed, year after year.  While not troubling by itself, it raises the possibility that students are blindly voting “Yes” on every fee, without devoting adequate attention to the proposed budget amount. Furthermore, this trend has caused some groups who provide services to both undergraduates and graduates to petition *undergraduate *Special Fees, because undergrads are more likely to pass the levy. This trend effectively increases undergraduate special fees, and works against reforms to bring the fees down to a more reasonable, sustainable level.

The Solutions

The system has been modified significantly to deal with the increase in refund rates and astronomical growth of Special Fees. Namely, budgets are only allowed to expand by inflation, year over year. Any further increase requires re-petitioning. This ends the era of “easy money” where student budgets were inflating nearly 10% per year, a welcome development.

Furthermore, a rediscovered clause in the ASSU constitution now is in effect; if the refund rate on a particular student group exceeds 10%, instead of covering the discrepancy, the ASSU will now deduct the amount from a student group’s quarterly Special Fees payout.  This will ensure the financial stability of the ASSU, and also will effectively punish student groups whose agendas are controversial or unpopular enough to exceed 10% refunds.

Lastly, the ASSU is working with the University to ensure that refund checks are returned to the party that pays tuition, as opposed to the students themselves; this will decrease incentives for students to make socially irresponsible decisions for a quick $130, as it is likely the refund would be cut to their parents.

**Next Steps **

Ultimately, Special Fees should be a mechanism to empower students to make informed decisions about the endeavors they support. While we applaud the reforms undertaken this year, we think the efficacy of system should be closely followed through these spring elections and next year.

If it seems that the system is consistently failing to meet this stated objective (ever increasing refunds, skyrocketing special fees, despite nearly universal “Yes” passage on the poor turnout ballot), then alternatives to Special Fees should be explored.

For now, we look forward to the spring elections and refund numbers; the new reforms should rectify many of the problems facing Special Fees and will hopefully result in a system more closely representing the will of the student body.

— Editorial Board

Unsigned editorials represent the views of The Stanford Review’s Editorial Board and do not necessarily reflect opinions of The Stanford Review or its staff. The Editorial Board consists of the Opinion Editor, the Executive Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief. Executive Editor Alex Katz did not participate in the writing of this editorial due to his role as an Undergraduate Senator. To submit a letter to the editor or guest op-ed, please e-mail our Opinion Editor, Matt Sprague, at mattfs@stanford.edu.

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