Arizona Student Group’s University Funding Targeted

After the Arizona Students' Association played a major role in a ballot referendum in the state, the group took heat on multiple fronts. Now it faces a bill that would limit its reach.

Thanks to a legislative push, the organization that looks out for Arizona college students’ educational interests could find itself significantly weakened.

More on the group’s funding challenges, along with its legislative and legal battles, below:

The backstory: Last fall, the Arizona Students’ Association (ASA), a group that receives its funding through a refundable $2 fee on tuition at all three state universities, supported the passage of Proposition 204, a ballot measure that would have extended an education sales-tax increase set to expire in May. ASA, which often works on legislative issues involving education and financial aid, donated $122,000 to the campaign pushing for the measure. Supporting the intiative was controversial within the association itself, and some student leaders on its board resigned. In the end, Prop. 204 did not pass.

The reasons for the board’s decision at its final vote were nothing more than excuses to justify retaliation.

Funding challenged: As a result of the controversy, the Arizona Board of Regents fielded complaints regarding the group’s funding, leading to a review and the eventual suspension of the fee during the spring semester. At the same time, some conservative political groups, including the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, raised concerns about the way the funding was used, suggesting it raises “legal questions about whether their actions constituted unconstitutional ‘compelled speech’ on behalf of its student funders.” The think tank also suggested, based on interviews with former ASA board members, that the association may have ignored its own bylaws in pushing for the initiative. The association notes that students voted in favor of the fee in 1997 and 2008.

The lawsuit: In recent weeks, the group’s funding fell further into question when the Arizona Board of Regents decided that the $2 fee should be opt-in rather than opt-out. ASA responded with a lawsuit. “Students believe the regents decision to change ASA’s funding method was a direct result of ASA’s support of Prop. 204,” ASA Treasurer Brianna Pantilione said in a statement. “The reasons for the board’s decision at its final vote were nothing more than excuses to justify retaliation.” The group argues that making the fee opt-in violates students’ First Amendment rights.

The proposed legislation: Meanwhile, ASA finds itself at the center of a political battle in the state legislature. On Monday, the Arizona House passed a bill designed to prohibit student groups from receiving funding via university billing. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. John Kavanagh, told The Arizona Republic that the group should not be able to use such fees for political influence: “Can I do that? Can the Sierra Club do that? Can the ‘tea party’ do that? No.” The association’s Alexander Marks, meanwhile, warns that the bill “would completely kill us” if it became law.

The legislation, which now goes to the Arizona Senate, passed the House on a party-line 35–24 vote, with Democrats voting against the funding change.

Arizona State University (photo by Kevin Dooley/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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