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Frivolous spending of fees points to institutional issues in student government

The Undergraduate Students Association Elections Board’s $15,000 dollar expenditure on gift cards to boost voter turnout for the recent USAC elections is a frivolous waste of money that could have gone into helping students during this difficult time. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Mark Mcgreal

May 22, 2020 4:46 pm

Once Bruins hand over their annual fees to the Undergraduate Students Association Council, they have no say over where that money goes.

And neither does USAC.

This year’s election saw two referendums on the ballot, both of which sought to increase student fees. The Cultivating Unity For Bruin Referendum called for a $15 quarterly fee, while the Good Clothes Good People Basic Needs Referendum asked students to pay an additional 99 cents each year. Only the latter passed.

And to increase voter turnout and give money back to students, the USA Elections Board and USAC decided to incentivize voters with gift cards that collectively cost both bodies a whopping total of $15,000.

While $15,000 represents just a tiny fraction of USAC’s and USA’s budgets, spending money on such a frivolous expenditure while simultaneously asking students to pay more in student fees is irresponsible. In the midst of a global pandemic, $15,000 would go a long way in helping students who actually need the money. Moving forward, students need to have a greater say over where their money goes and how it’s being spent. And by voting against CUB, the student body has already shown that it cares where its money goes.

It’s the very least students deserve from two on-campus institutions that claim to have their best interests at heart.

It’s important to note that USAC doesn’t have total discretion to decide how student funds are spent. Former USAC President Robert Watson said the council can reallocate funds within a particular expense category, but it can’t indiscriminately take money meant for one project and move it wherever the council sees fit.

“There is a misconception about how USAC can just move around its money,” Watson said. “Every year, USAC has a surplus. This year, because things were moved online, we did have a surplus of contingency funds that we could move around for contingency-related programming.”

So instead of putting the money into the recently created COVID-19 Relief Fund where it could help students in need, USAC wasted $15,000 on a gimmick.

USAC’s inability to effectively utilize funds during a global health crisis shows just how ineffectual the governing body at UCLA truly is. Students trust the council with exorbitant amounts of money, yet USAC doesn’t even appear to be in control of its own spending decisions.

Gurkriti Ahluwalia, a third-year marine biology student, chose to vote because she wanted to have a say in the way UCLA is run.

“I didn’t vote to win a gift card,” Ahluwalia said. “I really thought the referendums were important.”

Based on voter turnout in years past, the gift cards also seem to have done very little to influence students’ decisions to vote.

While this year’s voter turnout of 30.06% nearly doubled last year’s abysmal 16.18%, it’s not much higher than the voter turnout in 2017 or 2018, which sat at 27.5% and 26.5%, respectively.

This year’s increase in voter turnout might speak to the greater number of candidates and referendums on the ballot. Last year, 16 candidates ran for office and no referendums were voted on, while 30 candidates ran this year and the ballot contained the two aforementioned referendums.

There’s no way to tell whether the gift card incentive actually convinced students to vote, but it seems unlikely that it swayed many Bruins who would otherwise not have cast their ballots.

But some officials are just happy they could give some student money back.

In an interview with The Bruin earlier this month, USA Elections Board Chair Navi Sidhu said he thought this was good way to give some money back to the student body in light of current circumstances. Despite the nice sentiment, this money only went to a select number of students who may not even need the additional financial support to begin with.

And, at the end of the day, $15 really isn’t going to make a huge difference to struggling students. Naomi Riley, the recently elected USAC president, admitted as much.

“I ran Books For Bruins, and allocating $25 dollars wasn’t enough, allocating $100 wasn’t enough,” Riley said. “And we see with the CARES (Act) grant that students are saying $200 as a universal payment isn’t enough.”

Just like the recent stimulus checks some Americans received, a one-time payment might improve things for a short period of time, but that money will eventually run out sooner rather than later – especially when dealing with amounts as low as $15.

Yet, every dollar counts. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which has been used to grant students financial support to grapple with the fallout of the pandemic, doesn’t provide money for undocumented or international students. These groups need actual financial support from USAC, not the chance to win a gift card.

Sure, it’s great that USAC reallocated this money and at least some students got something back. The council could easily have ignored the surplus and let the money go to waste or used it for a Zoom event the vast majority of students likely would not have attended.

But the money wasn’t placed in the area where it could do the most good, and the student body suffered because of it.

The elections board could’ve looked for a way around the restrictions on moving the money intended for campaigning efforts into the COVID-19 Relief Fund – thus returning money to students who actually need it. Instead, they found a way to use the money as a promotion for a measly 30% turnout.

The red tape involved in moving money around is absurd, and students should have a say in deciding what to do with surplus funds.

But until students get a greater voice in reallocation of student fees, Bruins will continue to feel slighted – and USAC will keep looking impractical.

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