As the University grapples with the unprecedented changes brought by the coronavirus pandemic, the student government assembled on Zoom Wednesday night to debate the reinstatement of a fee raise, already voted down by the student body and vetoed by the student-body president.
The evening commenced with the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico’s President Adam Biederwolf announcing three major breakthroughs prompted by the pandemic.
Biederwolf said he would sign an executive order to allocate about $30,000 from ASUNM’s general fund for emergency scholarships.
“This isn’t a process that ASUNM has spearheaded, so we’re kind of just piggybacking off of the resource centers and their respective processes,” Biederwolf said.
Biederwolf then directed further questions about the emergency scholarships to ASUNM Chief of Staff Jacob Silva and Deputy Chief of Staff Victoria Peña-Parr, who he said headed the allocation project.
Biederwolf also told senators he would veto the $25 flat government fee raise (Bill 9S) — which he advocated for just weeks before — in part because of the affliction brought by COVID-19 and in part because he secured funding from UNM higher administration just weeks prior.
“A couple weeks ago I received news from the budget office that UNM admin refinanced their debt services budget and that left freed up dollars, and UNM admin chose to allocate those funds to ASUNM after the presidential election,” Biederwolf said. “They heard that we did not pass the amendment and they wanted to help us out, this was not UNM admin trying to control our student government, this wasn’t them overseeing our student government, this was them trying to help.”
Biederwolf said it would be especially difficult to outreach to students on the fee raise bill — which has been attributed as a reason for the bill’s repeated defeat — because of the public health crisis.
“We have secured funding for as long as Stokes is president of UNM, and I think this is something that can be pushed back when times are a lot more simple,” Biederwolf said. “I think right now there’s a lot of stress on the backs of students right now and I think this would be a bad look for ASUNM to go and push this fee increase right away.”
Biederwolf reiterated his belief that the bill is necessary long-term and said he would support it if senators garnered the two-thirds majority to override his veto.
During public comment, Silva explained that each of the five resource centers — the LGBTQ Resource Center, Women’s Resource Center, African American Student Services, El Centro de la Raza and American Indian Student Services — as well as ASUNM will receive 10 emergency scholarships worth $500 to distribute to eligible undergraduates, which amounts to 60 individual recipients.
“So what’s going to happen is all the resource centers are going to give us the names and banner ID’s of the students so a representative from ASUNM or the Student Activities Center (SAC) is going to go through the applications and make sure that no other resource center offered the same student an emergency scholarship,” Silva said. “We think it’s best that students can apply to a variety of different resource centers for the emergency scholarship but not receive more than one.”
Following Silva’s public comment, a few interruptions were caused by participants who used the speaking opportunity to spout slurs and other obscene language, causing Director of SAC Ryan Lindquist to remove them from the Zoom meeting. Some users even took the opportunity to mimic the identities of actual senators — such as changing their display name to “Sen. Maus,” for example — to deliberately confuse moderators when turning microphones on.
But despite the temporary financial security and executive veto dealt by Biederwolf, senators like Pro Tempore Emma Hotz raised concerns with delaying the bill for another semester.
“After our last senate meeting, I know a lot of us were discouraged because it did not pass, but we were encouraged by our president who felt senators should pass this bill so students could at least vote for it again,” Hotz said. “I agree with my coauthor (Regalado) and would also like to thank President Biederwolf and his efforts to give us another solution, however, if the argument is that we should not put this forward due to the pandemic, I think we should also reconsider having a senate election in its entirety.”
Outreach and Appointments Chair Suha Musa echoed Hotz’ logic and asserted if senate elections do proceed in late April, the fee raise bill ought to be on there. Musa acknowledged that she voted against the bill the last time, but said it was because she was frustrated that outreach attempts did not lead to the passage of the bill.
“I can’t help but think if not now, then when,” Musa said.
Musa also said for “over 80%” of undergraduates, the $25 government fee would only be a $5 increase and that if senators were concerned about financial burdens imposed by UNM, they should focus on UNM raising tuition and fees again.
“The University is raising tuition and fees over 5.5%,” Musa said. “I think it’s good and I appreciate that President Biederwolf was able to go and find us another solution, but what worries me is to me that still seems temporary, and as senators we were elected to make those long term solutions.”
Finance Chair Abby Lutz also highlighted that even if the bill were passed during this pandemic, students would not incur the cost until the fall. Lutz said students would benefit from the increase through participation in ASUNM’s 8 agencies, student organizations and other services paid for by the government fee.
“I definitely understand and recognize the economic toll the pandemic has had on all of us, but we’re not asking students to pay right now,” Lutz said. “Additionally, we don’t know how long this temporary fix is going to last for, and I feel like that’s kind of what’s gotten us into this position, we have a solution, so let’s just wait it out — that’s what leads to crisis situations is when we don’t plan for the future because we have a temporary fix.”
Finance Senator Adam Lopez disagreed with the implication that the current fee raise bill was anything other than a temporary fix.
“I think we need to realize too that this also is not a permanent fix,” Lopez said. “Maybe the next administration comes along and sees that ‘oh my gosh, enrollments decreased a lot, we actually need like a $10 increase,’ — we don’t know what kinds of impacts (the pandemic) is going to have, so saying this is a permanent fix is just not correct.”
Finance Senator and ASUNM Vice President-elect Ana Milan agreed with Lopez.
“If we have the opportunity to save the students money, that’s our responsibility as senate to try to do that and try to do what’s best for students,” Milan said.
Even so, Steering and Rules Senator Ryan Regalado said his reasoning for opposing Biederwolf’s veto was the uncertainty surrounding UNM higher administration’s allocation.
“I don’t want to put any future administrations or senators in a position where by the next year or year after if admin decided ‘we’re short on money, we’re giving ASUNM $150,000 a year, let’s pull it from there, they already have $600,000 a year, we’re just kind of supplementing them,’” Regalado said. “It’s almost like we always have to be scared that’s a possibility of that happening. That’s why I definitely think we should put that (bill) in now.”
Still, a plurality of senators did not agree that the continuation of senate elections meant Bill 9S should be passed.
“I believe placing this back on the ballot after when we had an opportunity for the majority of the student population who were not worried about things such as a global pandemic, who were not worried about things such as trying to vote online, they already voted this down,” Steering and Rules Senator Timothy Mondloch said. “I believe that putting it back on there is an added piece of stress that they don’t need and it’s not what’s best for the students.”
The fee raise bill ultimately failed and will not be on the spring senate ballot if the Elections Commission opts to proceed with the election. Their other business, the ASUNM spring budget bill, passed unanimously after contentious debate the weeks prior.
Alyssa Martinez is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @amart4447.