Bill would prohibit student fees from funding political lobbying
A state representative's bill prohibiting university organizations from using student fee money to lobby for political causes came in response to controversy involving the Arizona Students' Association and its use of tuition money, but the bill faces opposition from other groups.
If passed, House Bill 2169 would make it illegal for Arizona student organizations to use tuition money to influence elections or legislation. Additionally, students must clear each organization before it can receive tuition money.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Maricopa, said he believes it is immoral for an organization to take money meant for a university and then use it for its own political goals.
“I think it’s highway robbery to steal from these students,” said Kavanagh. “It is just plain wrong."
Concerns with HB 2169 arose over which student groups would be affected and what specific actions would no longer be allowed. The bill places restrictions on any “organization consisting of students enrolled at that university” and would not allow these organizations to influence an election or raise support or opposition for legislation.
Tempe Undergraduate Student Government President Mark Naufel is among those concerned that the bill could damage more than its intended targets. He plans to meet with Kavanagh to discuss how the bill in its current state could place restrictions on student governments and other clubs.
“At the end of the day, I think you’ll see the bill change to directly target these nonprofits,” Naufel said.
The bill has been assigned to the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee but is not yet on the committee's agenda.
However, Naufel does agree with Kavanagh about the issue of tuition fees and their usage.
ASA received a $2 semesterly fee from the tuition of every Arizona university student that does not choose to opt out. However, the fee was suspended for the semester following discussion that arose when three of ASU's four undergraduate student body presidents left the ASA Board of Directors in September.
According to its mission statement, ASA “works to make sure that higher education in Arizona is affordable and accessible by advocating to elected officials and running issue campaigns to engage students.”
ASA used some of the money earned from this fee in 2012 to support Proposition 204, which would have renewed a 1-cent sales tax approved in 2010 to fund education and infrastructure. ASA’s support of this proposition ignited conversation about the ethics of using tuition fees to influence politics.
Naufel, USG Downtown President Joesph Grossman and USG Polytechnic President Jeffrey Hebert stepped down from ASA's board out of protest.
Naufel stresses that ASA is a student organization and not an elected student government, which raises concerns about accountability.
“They’re taking fees from every student, including those who might not agree with them,” Naufel said. “There is no accountability.”
ASA contends that HB 2169 is a violation of the First Amendment rights guaranteed to student organizations.
On its website, ASA has created an outlet titled, "Don't infringe on student freedom of speech," for students to email legislators with concerns over HB 2169.
Rhian Stotts, president of ASU’s Graduate and Professional Association and a board member of ASA, said she was concerned about what effect the bill would have on the efforts of student organizations to register students to vote or campaign for elections and legislation.
“Students would not be allowed to advocate for what they believe in,” Stotts said.
Stotts defended the automatic tuition fee, saying it is among the clearest fees presented to students and any student can decide not to pay it.
However, it still is not clear whether most students understand that the fee is optional.
Kavanagh said he believes ASA intentionally deceives university students.
“To have to go over hurdles to get out of the payment is ridiculous,” he said. "It’s un-American.”
Debate is ongoing about whether the issue should be handled in the Legislature at all. The Arizona Board of Regents handles university fees, and it was ABOR Policy 5-201 that established the tuition fee that goes to the Arizona Students’ Association.
The board will review two proposals concerning ABOR Policy 5-201 at its February meeting. These proposals suggest either clarifying to students that the fee is not mandatory or eliminating the tuition collection process entirely.
“I’m confident the Regents will deal with it,” Kavanagh said.
After his Monday meeting with Kavanagh, Naufel does not feel that the bill will pass in its current state.
“If you’re a part of a student club or organization, I wouldn’t worry,” Naufel said. “We at student council aren’t worried.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Mark Naufel met with Rep. John Kavanagh on Monday. Naufel met with other legislators on Monday and plans to meet with Kavanagh later.