AZ student questions ASA contribution to Prop 204 campaign

Students unknowingly support Prop 204 campaign

Arizona university students have contributed over $120,000 in cash and funded countless man hours to support the Prop 204 (Yes on Proposition 204) campaign, which would permanently raise the state sales tax, yet most of them probably don’t even know they’ve made a contribution. In fact, many of them may not even agree with the initiative.

In a Special Investigation released Thursday, Goldwater Institute Investigative Reporter Christian Palmer explains how the Arizona Students Association broke its own rules earlier this year when the student-funded 501(c)(4) organization applied its money and manpower to aid the Quality Education and Jobs Committee, a political committee formed to launch the statewide ballot initiative now called Prop 204.

This week, four students who sit on the ASA board as Arizona State University representatives resigned their positions, citing their inability to speak out against ASA internal politics, including how the organization’s funds are spent. Another representative resigned his ASA board post earlier this month.

One former ASA board member told the Goldwater Institute that when he tried to speak out against the organization’s actions last year, professional staff threatened to sue him.

Founded in 1974, the ASA is a student group representing the 130,000 students who attend ASU, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona. According to the ASA’s mission statement, the organization works to “make sure that higher education in Arizona is affordable and accessible by advocating to elected officials and running issue campaigns to engage students.” The ASA reaped more than $585,000 from Arizona university students in 2012. Over the course of the past five years, the group has received $2.6 million in fees.

The Goldwater Institute found that the ASA doesn’t have to get approval from students before it determines how to spend funds, but it is required to get approval from its board of directors, which is comprised of elected representatives of the student body. However, those directors’ one-year terms make board turnover nearly constant, which means significant power resides with the ASA’s professional staff members. According to former ASA board members interviewed by the Goldwater Institute, members of the ASA’s professional staff knowingly ignored the organization’s bylaws in order to help Prop 204.

This controversy emerged last spring, when several board members refused to support Prop 204, and took steps to ensure the ASA did not endorse the initiative. Having repeatedly failed to secure that endorsement from a majority of the board, the ASA’s professional staff proceeded to earmark organizational resources for the initiative campaign, including cutting a $20,000 check to the campaign, despite the fact that ASA internal financial policies require the board to review and approve all expenditures of $300 or more.

In June, having been almost entirely repopulated by newly elected board members, the ASA board voted to contribute $100,000 to the Yes on Prop 204 campaign, making the ASA a larger contributor to the campaign than the teachers’ unions and school boards association and second only to a contractors’ group.

The ASA’s contributions to the Yes on Prop 204 campaign raise legal questions about whether their actions constituted unconstitutional “compelled speech” on behalf of its student funders. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in cases on similar issues that people cannot be forced to fund political speech with which they disagree. Because all students are required to pay the fee to the ASA and the process for obtaining a refund isn’t advertised and is cumbersome, the fee may violate the First Amendment rights of university students.

The Goldwater Institute is examining these recent events and is considering legal action on behalf of ASU students.