How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Endorse “Yes” for the Fee Referendum

The “Vote Yes” campaign has been incessant but poorly articulated.  I get the feeling that they weren’t really anticipating any opposition and framed it as an awareness campaign.  The same tepid Yes message on the fee question – increase fees because clubs and services are things you like – was repeated wholesale throughout every Ubyssey article (guess why), and nobody else really said all that much on the topic.  (Neal finally did do a good job of explaining just what all the myriad changes were, but didn’t go any further into the background about why voting one way or another might be a good idea.)

Then the “No” campaign came out with actual materials and really managed to push a button with quite a few students.  Resentment for some of the AMS’ actions in recent memory is a really easy feeling to stir up, but they’ve combined this with capitalizing on student ignorance. They’ve made a habit of quoting people out of context, making misleading insinuations, and using somewhat sloppy math.

This campaign paints the entire fee increase as an unnecessary cash grab, and pretends the current deficit is illusory.  They use a handful of recent, highly visible, and unpopular legal expenditures to try to convince students that the entire AMS budget plan using the existing fee structure is pork-filled and deserves some cutting down; this is pretty far from the truth.  They ignore this year’s re-negotiations of the Health and Dental Plan’s actual cost and act as if the $14 fee decrease is an actual cut. Overall, they’ve used sensationalism over substance, and the image they’ve conveyed to students has not been accurate.

AMS budget documents are not popular bedtime reading for most of the student body, which has allowed the “No” campaign to ignore some important aspects of the current state of affairs.  Or, perhaps, they’re ignoring things because they haven’t done very much reading either.  Campaign leader Nick Frank’s letter to the Ubyssey calls both the proposed International Projects Fund fee (which is funding an already-existing initiative run by UBC, not the AMS) and the Resource Groups fee (which isn’t increasing, will actually become opt-outable only if the referendum passes, and which has has been pretty soundly demonstrated to be outside of direct AMS control this year) “slush funds,” displaying a fundamental ignorance about how fees are actually administered. The campaign quotes VP Finance Elin Tayyar as stating there were “no plans yet on how the money will be used,” but he was referring directly the new student initiative fees (Clubs Benefit and Sustainability); the reason why he doesn’t know precisely how they’ll be spent because they will directly fund new projects run by students-at-large (the AMS isn’t calling for submissions of project proposals until it’s determined whether or not these funds will actually exist.)

Anyone trying to navigate the sea of rhetoric surrounding whether the fee increases will ultimately benefit students would find that most of the discussion has been heavy on feeling and light on facts.  It wasn’t until after I’d done hours of research that I could really say I was confident in voting for either option.  In the end, I decided that voting yes on fees would be directly beneficial to myself and other students, and here’s why:

My reason for voting Yes: Actual deficits mean actual cuts.

In the 2010-2011 yearly budget, the AMS felt it needed to allocate spending $372,000 of its reserve funds in addition to all of its projected revenues – even after eliminating the Equity program completely, drastically cutting spending on Safewalk, and getting rid of some staff positions.  Not all of the funds allocated were spent, although the situation is still worse than it was projected to be just this December:  all told, actual spending for this year is now expected to exceed revenues by $271,000 (well above the $140,000 figure reported in December.)

Running such a large deficit is a really bad idea, because it eats into reserve funds and it’s ultimately financially unsustainable.  Tayyar intends to balance next year’s budget (i.e. not allocate for any spending over and above expected revenues) even if the fee increase doesn’t pass; however, this would not be possible without cutting allocations by $369,000.  These cuts would have to come from either the Student Government, Communications, or Events portfolios; and with a combined budget of just over $1 million between the three the cuts would be enormous.  More than likely, the AMS would be required to cut insurance for student groups, lay off staff, or even get rid of non-essential events like the Welcome Back Barbecue.  Even if the responsible but lean-to-the-bones intention of balancing the budget didn’t fly, another budget involving a potential deficit anywhere near $350,000 is completely unacceptable and very deep cuts would still be made. It’s already crisis time this year, and without raising fees things will get worse.

But doesn’t the new fee structure increase funding by over $800,000? Yes, it does.  That figure was calculated as the total amount of the increase of all fees taken in by the AMS (i.e. all increases other than those going to the Ubyssey and CiTR Radio, which are independent entities.)  Some of these fees, however, will be passed on to programs run by UBC (International Projects and the Childcare Bursary Fund), and some will go into fees that are separate from the general budget (Sexual Assault Support Services, which is self-explanatory, and Student Spaces, which maintains buildings such as the current SUB and the Whistler Lodge.)  Some, as well, will be directly allocated to new programs run by students-at-large (Sustainability and Clubs Benefit)  and couldn’t go toward the sort of spending that really grinds students’ gears (such as petitioning international bodies, buying big-screen TVs, or hiring the Barenaked Ladies.)  Also, it’s not irresponsible or greedy for the AMS to want revenues to be slightly more than expenditures – this allows for the creation of new programs or the repayment of reserve funds to prepare for rainy days in the future. If (with the proposed small increase) a budget surplus be reached while still charging some of the lowest student fees among large universities in Canada, it shows that, in the long view, the AMS’ financial side has ultimately been doing a good job.

If you haven’t voted yet, I urge you to do so. It only takes a minute at the SSC (log in and click WebVote) and will have a huge impact on the future for UBC students. A fee increase is truly needed and the current proposal is far from being a poorly-thought-out cash-grab.  Getting more than 8% of all fee-paying students to vote in a referendum is a massively expensive and difficult thing, and without a U-Pass renewal, there might not be another opportunity to alleviate this situation for quite awhile.


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  1. Best. Post. Ever.

    Posted by Brian Platt | March 9, 2011, 6:27 pm
  2. I concur. thanks for laying it down.

    Posted by Lyle Melnick | March 10, 2011, 2:25 pm
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