May 21, 2015

No justifiCATion

SG decreased CAT funding based on estimations and impressions—not facts.

Student Government recently passed its budget for next year, approving increases for the Graduate Student Council and club sports teams at the expense of (primarily) the Uncommon Fund and the Coalition of Academic Teams (CAT). Given that the budget increased by $80,000 since last year, and that the cuts from the CAT have been strongly criticized by its representatives, it is important to examine the system under which these decisions were made. How were these cuts and increases justified?

A review of the minutes from the May 11 Student Government assembly meeting shows that the $20,000 cut from the CAT (a group of five academic teams including Model UN and Mock Trial that compete across the U.S.) was debated in terms of precedent and fairness, rather than necessity of the items within the CAT’s budget.

In fact, the rhetoric of the decision  seemed to focus on impressions and estimations, rather than actual numbers. One representative, for example, claimed that because the CAT is already one of the largest line items in Student Government’s budget, its funding shouldn’t be increased. Another representative disagreed, saying that Student Government should increase the CAT’s budget because of a precedent that supports budget increases. One student worried that it might seem “vindictive” to cut too much from the CAT. Only one representative brought up the CAT’s approximate fundraising revenue.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the seemingly arbitrary decision has met with backlash from CAT representatives, who claim that the cut will prevent them from being able to fund all travel expenses and thus fulfill their no-barriers pledge, which allows low-income students (and, in fact, all students) to participate in competitions without cost. At no point during the Student Government assembly’s discussion did anyone bring up the CAT’s no-barriers policy, or consider how the cuts might affect those organizations’ accessibility to low-income students. But why? It’s possible that the assembly didn’t know about CAT’s policy—or any specifics about CAT’s budget breakdown. Sports clubs collect dues to cover some costs, so it’s likely that a similar compromise could have been made with CAT members had information about no-barriers been available at the meeting. But it wasn’t. And every year that Student Government doesn’t implement an internal auditing system with respect to line items in its budget like the CAT, sports clubs, the community service fund, and the Program Coordinating Council (which funds Summer Breeze and other major events) is another year in which the budgets for these organizations will be set seemingly arbitrarily, with little regard to how and who they affect.

However, an internal auditing system would require Student Government to do huge amounts of research and coordination. It would be difficult, especially because SG executive slates are usually only in office for one year, and therefore have no reason to even think about setting up a system that will only help their successors. (To his credit, SG President Tyler Kissinger did bring up the possibility of organizational audits during the budget meeting). However, there is another option: zero-based budgeting, which would require each organization or department to justify its proposed budget every year. If Student Government had required CAT representatives to make a case for the budget increase, it could have prioritized funds for the no-barriers policy and kept the most important parts of their budget safe. Zero-based budgeting makes it easy to find line items to trim, by ensuring that money is only allocated to organizations or movements that have passionate leaders who can justify their funding with plans for the future and clear ideas about what to prioritize.

Student Government allocates more than $2 million of student funds each year to different student organizations. It’s time students were given the responsibility of justifying the allocation of those funds.

Maya Handa is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy.