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Student advocacy group faces funding loss over political donation

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PHOENIX – Students in Arizona’s public universities have paid a fee every year since 1998 directed to an organization aimed at giving a student voice to higher education causes.

Now the Arizona Students Association faces losing much of that funding over a decision to contribute $122,000 last year to the campaign supporting Proposition 204. The measure, which failed, would have established a one cent-per-dollar sales tax primarily benefiting education.

In response to controversy generated by the contribution, the Arizona Board of Regents voted in February to make the $2 fee each student pays toward ASA optional. In response, ASA has sued the board.

The contribution also helped prompt a bill before the state Legislature that would prohibit student groups from using money from tuition or fees to influence an election or advocate for or against proposed laws.

At stake is around $600,000 ASA receives annually from the per-student fees, which it uses to employ full-time staff, pay for its Phoenix office and advocate on higher education issues.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said his HB 2169 followed the group’s decision to “double down in stupidity” by making the campaign contribution and then suing the regents. The bill won House approval and passed through the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 6-3 vote Tuesday.

“If this rogue group wants to use fees to sue the university when the university is trying to protect the best interests of their students, then let them get an old coffee can, spray paint it red, set up a card table and collect money in front of the university,” Kavanagh said during a previous committee hearing. “Stop playing games with them.”

Wesley Enns, a Northern Arizona University student who serves as chairman of ASA’s board of directors, said Kavanagh’s bill would take a significant toll on ASA’s advocacy on higher education issues.

“It’s an attack on the students more than anything,” Enns said. “Legally students can have a voice, and it can be political or not.”

All four of Arizona State University’s undergraduate student government presidents voted to contribute to Yes on 204 but stepped down from ASA’s board in September and publicized concerns about the group’s spending.

“People start things with the best of intentions and over the years people lose sight,” said Mark Naufel, Arizona State University’s Tempe student body president. “Sometimes you become more interested in other venues than your original intentions.”

Arizona Board of Regents spokeswoman Sarah Harper said multiple concerns factored into the board’s decision to change ASA’s student fee, including questions about the group’s “cumbersome” refund process.

Students could previously opt out of the fee by requesting a $2 refund, but the request form had to be delivered within 21 days of the semester’s start to ASA’s Phoenix office.

“The only thing the Board of Regents has done is made the collections process even more transparent,” Harper said. “They can still raise funds – it’s just that now students can expressly indicate whether they want to participate or they don’t.”

ASA’s lawsuit against the regents contends that the change violated students’ First Amendment rights. The board has filed a motion for dismissal.

Arizona Board of Regents Chair Rick Myers said in a written statement that ASA is still able, as a separate entity, to engage in any speech it chooses.

Dan Sullivan, ASA’s communications director, said the group sued the regents to ensure students can engage in political activity without fearing retribution from the regents.

“ASA’s goal has stayed the same as it always has been,” he said.

ASU’s student leaders have said they believe in the group’s core mission. What they don’t agree with is its funding, Naufel said.

“It’s a great idea and a great organization,” he said. “I would have started the same thing … But you start to question the fee because the fee is questionable.”

The student body presidents of Arizona’s three public universities persuaded the Arizona Board of Regents to create ASA in 1974, and it existed for more than 20 years without student funding.

After ASA requested independence from outside influences, students on all three campuses voted to initiate a $1-per-student mandatory fee in 1998. They voted again in 2008 to increase that fee to $2.

Naufel said binding students to a fee passed five years ago is unrealistic because only a handful of ASU students vote in university elections.

“To mandate a fee out to all students when not all students vote is ridiculous,” Naufel said. “What about the students who voted no? What about the students who never voted at all?”

Student regent Tyler Bowyer said some students consider it unfair to pay a fee to a group not directly tied to the university.

“The real issue is just to get rid of the fee – let them fundraise like any other organization,” he said.

With or without dedicated funding, Sullivan said, ASA will continue to exist.

“The future of ASA is the same as its past,” he said. “Whatever form it takes, we’re going to be there advocating for higher education.”