In order to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Michigan Student Assembly has approved a resolution that will simplify the assembly’s budget and give it a larger role in planning and operating events that it sponsors.
Moreover, student groups can expect to see an overall increase in funding from past years, while the assembly itself will be responsible for less money, leaving a significant portion of MSA’s formidable bank account in the hands of its committees and commissions.
The change comes after last year’s Chief of Staff Elliot Wells-Reid brought a suit against MSA to the Central Student Judiciary. The judiciary found MSA in potential violation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, which said that student governments must take adequate steps to assure that all student groups were considered equally for funding.
According to the ruling, MSA was in violation of Southworth because it was not necessarily “viewpoint neutral” in all of its allocations. According to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who delivered the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Southworth, “the whole theory of viewpoint neutrality is that minority views are treated with the same respect as are majority views.” In other words, CSJ required that the assembly be more neutral in whom it allocated funds to from its budget. To guard against further litigation, the ruling stripped the assembly of the ability to directly access the committee discretionary account, a fund containing approximately $100,000, until it could become Southworth compliant.
The new resolution aims to address these problems cited in last year’s ruling against MSA by revamping the assembly’s $700,000 budget and reconstructing the way money is allocated to student groups. The resolution also ensures that MSA will be able to legally access funds that the central student judiciary enjoined last fall.
“This is the biggest change to our code in years,” MSA President Jesse Levine said.
Stuart Wagner, chair of the Campus Improvement Commission, who co-authored the resolution with Levine, said it was important for MSA to make changes to its allocation system so that it could access the money that was taken away from it when the judiciary ruled them to be in violation of Southworth.
“I wrote the proposal because MSA would not be able to function without it – we would have been unable to fund a lot of the things we needed to fund,” Wagner said.
In past years, most student groups applying for funding went through the Budget Priorities Committee, however, those who knew the nuances of the system could apply directly to MSA’s Committee Discretionary Account, which tended to give out more money than the BPC. The lawsuit that was originally filed against MSA involved the environmental advocacy group PIRGIM asking MSA for $20,000.
This was construed as unfair treatment because groups applying through the Budget Priorities Committee typically received a maximum of only $5,000. Under the new code, almost all funding will come from the Budget Priorities Committee, and MSA will only pay for special events.
“(The new resolution) dispels any perception that any ‘in’ to MSA will provide for better results in the funding process,” Levine said.
The resolution will shrink MSA’s Committee Discretionary Account from $100,000 to $15,000, and create a separate MSA Student Sponsored Activities and Events Account containing $50,000. Additionally, while MSA formerly had free reign over the contents of the discretionary account, it now has extensive guidelines about how and when it can be accessed.
“We basically took a sentence and replaced it with three or four pages,” Wagner said. “The code we passed complies with the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth.” Wagner added the new code would protect MSA from potential lawsuits stemming from the Supreme Court decision.
Under the new system, MSA commissions and committees will be given more money at the beginning of the year that they will budget for the entire semester, said MSA treasurer Devesh Senapati. Before, these groups had to apply for funding every time they needed money.
“There are some fundamental events that MSA works on every year. By giving these commissions a set budget, (we) give them flexibility,” Levine said. “But they still have to turn in those receipts; there’s still that accountability there.”
Planning a budget isn’t the only new responsibility of MSA committee chairs. The new resolution includes a clause that requires individuals with official ties to MSA to participate in the planning and operation of any event that the assembly sponsors.
“(We are) hoping that this will assure that the assembly will be involved in the event rather than just throwing money at it,” Wagner said.
The previous process was “unstructured,” according to Senapati, who said he spent a large chunk of his summer “wading through mounds of restrictions of paperwork and code.” He believes that a more straightforward way of doing things will make MSA’s ledgers simpler and more transparent.
“It’s a really complex issue, but I’m really proud of it. I think it’s something that will change the assembly for the better now and when I’m gone,” Levine said.
Wagner expressed measured confidence in the new budgetary procedures.
“We don’t know how it’s going to go; this could completely flop,” he said. “But I don’t think it will.”