The 2011-2012 budget released a few weeks ago by the Undergraduate Student Government has sparked outrage from members of many clubs and organizations. Nearly all of them have seen budget cuts, some dramatic.
USG blames the cuts on a new policy brought about by the threat of a lawsuit from the national conservative organization Young Americans for Freedom. Last year the Stony Brook chapter, angry that it was denied funding in its first year (as every club is), got the national organization to fund a legal team that threatened to sue Stony Brook University, USG and anyone else it could think of in an attempt to bully its way into a budget.
USG quickly adapted a policy, outlined in the United States Supreme Court case Board of Regents of Wisconsin v. Southworth, known as viewpoint neutrality. Sources inside USG have suggested that this was done to avoid paying legal fees; indeed, YAF dropped its threats of a lawsuit and declared victory.
“The Supreme Court developed the rule of viewpoint neutrality to protect the First Amendment rights of unpopular groups by prohibiting government from discriminating against them based on what those groups believe or say,” explained Nathan Shapiro, the Interim Administrative Director of USG at the time of the threatened lawsuit. “In the context of student government, the Supreme Court has said the First Amendment requires public universities to distribute mandatory student activity fees in a viewpoint-neutral manner.”
In the recent past, USG denied recognition and funding to clubs that held very similar mission statements, not wanting two nearly identical clubs to each collect a budget. The argument USG made in YAF’s initial hearing was that its platform was too similar to that of the College Republicans.
Now, no longer able to make such determinations, USG has placed strict new restrictions on all clubs’ spending.
“The policy works by assigning a set price to each item a club might request USG funding for,” explained USG Treasurer Thomas Kirnbauer. Now, there is a ceiling on speakers’ fees and big events like fashion shows and banquets, no matter which club is requesting funding.
“Now,” said Kirnbauer, “a club can spend up to $2,000 on a single speaker and a total of $6,000 per year.”
Current USG President Mark Maloof, who ran on a pro-club platform, called the budget cuts “upsetting” and said he hopes “that they will be made up for in the Fall revisions process.”
During Fall revisions, “rollover money” — money allocated but not spent the previous year — is redistributed to clubs and organizations.
“I can’t say exactly how much (there will be) at this time,” said Kirnbauer of the rollover money, explaining that USG is still paying off last year’s bills, “but it will be in the six figures.”
If Kirnbauer is correct, it could all but erase most budget cuts, assuming clubs file the necessary paperwork and Maloof’s administration relaxes some of the strict spending limitations imposed by last year’s USG.
Last year’s Senate passed the current budget on April 28, but the entire bill wasn’t put online until recently. A number of sources inside USG, including Maloof, identified viewpoint neutrality as the reason for the budget cuts.
Executive Vice President Deborah Machalow was the Senate’s presiding officer when the budget was approved, and lobbied heavily against its passage. While she wasn’t able to win over last year’s Senators, her message did appeal to voters.
“I can’t imagine clubs being cut again,” she said, citing that her and Maloof’s United Studetns Party had won a vast majority of the senate seats and would not pass a similar budget.
But at least for the start of this academic year, a number of clubs will have to operate on reduced budgets thanks to YAF’s lawsuit which, ironically, resulted in cuts to both conservative and liberal organizations, and didn’t achieve YAF’s goal of getting itself a budget.
As the new budget made its way around Facebook recently, club members, angered by the significant cuts to their budgets, began questioning some of the decisions made by the budget committee responsible for crafting it.
Members of the Stony Brook LGBTA vented in Facebook statuses that while their club lost $5,000 in funding, USG’s own budget for Agencies, Services and Operations gained more than a quarter of a million dollars.
According to Kirnbauer, who was on the committee that wrote the budget and helped establish the current spending limits, most of the cuts are due to the new policy, as well the practice of not returning unused money to clubs for the next year, and not an effort to fund USG services.
An additional $38,000 also disappeared from the overall USG club budget due to an accounting change that reclassified the Resident Hall Association from Clubs and Organizations to USG Agencies, Services and Operations. It does not represent an actual cut in club funding.
We have yet to see the final budget for this academic year, and it remains to be seen whether USG officials’ prediction that many of the cuts made last year will be restored in the revision process will be borne out. But the damage done by YAF’s threat may be lasting, and unless the resulting policies are overturned, will likely be causing some headaches at clubs accustomed to putting on large events.