Editor's Note: This story is the first in a series by Daily Lobo staff about undergraduate student government finances.
It was the spring of 2016 when a long-standing student organization was told they were no longer going to receive their primary source of funding.
Scribendi began in 1985 when students aimed to create a space for other Lobos to express themselves through writing. Alexandra Magel, current editor-in-chief of Scribendi, said the magazine’s production — which has been met with rich student involvement and national recognition — was put in jeopardy when the Associated Students of UNM told Scribendi staff that they were no longer eligible for funding through the spring ASUNM budget process.
The staff, including Magel, were shocked and left feeling hopeless. They were told that their student organization “functioned too much as a class.” Magel explained that was even more surprising to hear, because they had been operating under the same constitution for 15 years and had never run into problems with ASUNM. In fact, ASUNM typically provided one third of Scribendi’s budget, according to Magel.
Magel recalled what it was like to hear that the literary magazine may not be printed in 2017.
“To learn that Scribendi had lost its funding from ASUNM started as an awful record scratch that evolved into a constant, oppressive feeling that hung over the whole staff last year. As a staff member last year, I remember feeling like the ground had been ripped from under me,” she said. “It was the first time that UNM, which had become a safe second home for me, took on a sickly tinge — I couldn’t feel the same way while being on campus anymore.”
Scribendi was the only organization that lost all of its funding from ASUNM that semester.
“As the situation progressed, there was a day when I couldn’t eat and a couple weeks where I didn’t sleep well,” Magel said.
Melissa Krukar, a student at UNM and the managing editor of Scribendi this year, took a look at the ASUNM budget and said the undergraduate student government is very “exclusive” in whom the fund benefits.
“I find it predictable that they would fund themselves,” Krukar said.
Krukar said she felt that ASUNM was not benefiting the whole student body. She also went on to say she felt like ASUNM failed her and her fellow students.
The Scribendi staffers were not the only people who found the defunding controversial. According to minutes from an ASUNM Senate meeting on March 30, 2016, then-Senator Olivia Padilla said, “We should fund them $500 because they have not been given warning. They are not present right now.”
Sen. Jorge Guerrero also brought up another interesting part of the budget.
“How many of you knew that president and VP (of ASUNM) get a scholarship?” asked Guerrero, according to the meeting minutes. “We are cutting stuff that will go to students rather than talking about a scholarship that only affects two people. Why can’t we do that instead of stuff that will benefit students?”
The Daily Lobo found what Guerrero was referencing in that meeting: The tuition of ASUNM’s vice president and president is payed for by student fees through the ASUNM spring budget process, in addition to the salaries they receive.
When approached about these budget decisions, ASUNM Director of Communications Gabe Gallegos insisted the money given to ASUNM agencies and line items was directly benefitting students, stating that the majority of that money is “going directly back to student’s pockets, essentially.”
After Scribendi was defunded, and students approached the Daily Lobo with questions about where their money was going, we began an investigation into spending and the budget, which is deliberated on by the ASUNM Finance Committee before being presented to the Senate.
The Lobo found that ASUNM acted in compliance with their laws and regulations to defund Scribendi. The Finance Committee had and has the power to defund organizations without the approval of any other entity.
However, students at UNM and staff at the magazine wanted to know where the money was going, if not to one of the University’s most established literary magazines. After all, the money for ASUNM’s budget comes from the pool of student fees that every UNM student contributes to. Specifically, $20 in fees from every student goes to ASUNM for money to be allocated through appropriations, as well as the fall and spring budgets.
The Daily Lobo found that nearly 76 percent of the spring 2016 budget actually went to line items and agencies that are directly affiliated with ASUNM. Specifically, $523,700 of the $692,749 budget went to 14 agencies or line items that are affiliated with ASUNM. Within those line items, the money not only goes to pay for salaries of ASUNM workers, but also the tuition of top leadership.
Specifically, the ASUNM Senate line item pays for the vice president’s salary of $10,200 and tuition, which is $7,420. Other salaries are also paid for using student fees: the legislative coordinator makes $4,725, the senate clerk makes $4,725, and the finance chair makes $1,000 for both semesters. The ASUNM Senate budget also covers expenses such as refreshments and postage, totalling $4,017 and $3,000, respectively. In total, the ASUNM Senate line item from the spring received $36,852 in student fees.
In addition, the ASUNM General Government line item goes towards the ASUNM president’s salary of $10,200 as well as covering the president’s tuition. That line item also covers staff salaries: the chief of staff makes $7,600, the communications director makes $3,040, the deputy chief of staff makes $1,000 and the attorney general makes $1,000. The total of that line item equals $34,181.
Further, $30,953 of the ASUNM Administrative Account line item goes towards the salary of its front desk worker, who is not a student.
About $370,000 goes to agencies that include the ASUNM Arts and Crafts Studio, ASUNM Southwest Film Center and ASUNM Student Special Events. SSE alone was allocated almost $146,000, or about 21 percent of the total budget.
A joint statement by ASUNM leadership stated that “our eight student service agencies play a major role in what we do here at ASUNM and we believe that the services they provide to students are an invaluable aspect to the student experience.”
“Budgets only tell part of the story,” said Gallegos, when asked about this relatively large amount of money. “Our finance senators work hard to make sure students are accommodated in that (budget and appropriation) process.”
All student groups, including ASUNM agencies, can also request money through appropriations. While money for the budget is reserved for general operating costs, appropriations are funds for one-time expenditures, such as the purchase of a computer.
ASUNM officials referred the Daily Lobo to their website to clarify what the rules and regulations were on what ASUNM budget funds could be spent on. According to the budget rules, there is nothing that states the funds cannot be used for salaries.
However, the Daily Lobo contacted some other agencies and organizations that received funding from the ASUNM Budget process, including the Interfraternity Council, Multicultural Greek Council and the Panhellenic Council. All of them reported back that they do not and are not projected to use any of that money to pay salaries.
For full disclosure, 8.5 percent of student fees also go to Student Publications, which the Daily Lobo is a part of. That money is not used for the salaries of Daily Lobo staff.
The investigation also found that ASUNM again acted within compliance of their laws by allocating such a large percentage of total funds to their own line items and agencies. The process by which the ASUNM agencies request funding is the same process that any other organization uses to request funding, and there is not a special screening process for those agencies to allocate money to their own affiliated groups.
The Daily Lobo’s investigation found that this trend of allocating funds to ASUNM-affiliated groups is not unique to the 2016 spring budget.
In the 2013 spring budget — deliberated over by virtually an entirely different group of individuals that made up ASUNM leadership — 34 percent, or about $220,600, went to 133 non-ASUNM groups while the rest, almost $440,000, went to 14 ASUNM agencies and line items.
In 2014, 70 percent went to ASUNM agencies and line items, and that number increased to 74 percent a year later.
When asked about this trend, ASUNM Finance Chair Sally Midani said she can’t say with certainty if it will continue with the 2017 spring budget. Her position is only for the fall semester.
“I can definitely say the reason why that kind of trend has occurred, and that is something that I think we definitely can improve on as a group in terms of reflecting on that trend and seeing what changes we can make,” she said. “I really believe that those funds and every funds given to us, we allocate in the most responsible way possible.”
In its statement, ASUNM also said it stands by its process of allocating funds by senators who come from “diverse backgrounds and walks of life, each bringing a different perspective to the table.”
“We also are always looking at ways to ensure that the finance process is clear to students and equitable across student organizations,” the statement continues. “We are constantly striving to be open and transparent with our process.”
The full statement can be found below.
Shelby Perea is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @shelby_perea. David Lynch is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.