Photo Credits: QUINN SPOONER / AGGIE. Memorial Union on the UC Campus is home to ASUCD and their units. The upcoming ASUCD fee referendum is necessary in order for ASUCD and its units to continue to function.
Proposed fee would be $34 per quarter, the first increase to fee since 1979
Facing a roughly $500,000 deficit, the Associated Students of the University of California, Davis (ASUCD), is proposing the first increase to its student base fee in more than 40 years. According to ASUCD Controller Kevin Rotenkolber, who supports the proposed base fee increase, this deficit is due to many years of “mismanagement at the very top of the Association from previous executive teams” and “forces beyond the control [of] anyone within the Association.”
ASUCD officials hope that the Basic Needs and Services Referendum, the name of the vote to increase the base fee which is set for the ballot this winter, will help solve the budget crisis. The current base fee — a quarterly rate that students pay to support the organization — sits at $8 per quarter, or $24 per year, unchanged since 1979. Before that, it was $7 per quarter, changing minimally since the organization’s inception in 1915.
According to projections, the referendum would raise the 2020–21 base fee from $8 to $34 per quarter, then increase by roughly $8 each subsequent year after in an attempt to sustain the many functions of ASUCD.
Among other things, the referendum would finance The Pantry, the Mental Health Initiative (MHI), Housing Advising for Undergraduate Students (HAUS) and many other student-led organizations. It would also ideally account for other ASUCD-provided events, services and programs.
Rotenkolber explained in a 2020 financial report the challenges the association faces as well as potential solutions. The document describes the “financial freefall” ASUCD has experienced in recent years, and concludes with an in-depth look at the Basic Needs and Services Referendum.
He said that one of the biggest obstacles that hinders the success of the Basic Needs and Services Referendum is voter apathy, demonstrated by the historically low voter turnout in previous elections. For the referendum to pass successfully, two different thresholds must be met: At least 20% of the undergraduate student body must vote and 60% of voters must vote “yes.” ASUCD hopes that the voter turnout will be comparable to last year’s Unitrans Referendum, when around 10,000 undergraduates voted “yes.”
By comparison, in the past 100-plus years, the minimum wage in California has been adjusted 31 times due to rising living costs. This has put a significant strain on the association, which employs approximately 1,200 students. While costs continue to soar, the ASUCD base fee has remained stagnant, largely contributing to the deficit. It is also notably the lowest student government base fee as compared to other UC campuses — UC Berkeley students, for example, pay $112 annually, while UC Santa Barbara students pay $630.
According to the budget report, the fee stagnation has triggered a reduction in both the quality and quantity of ASUCD services available to students, especially considering minimum wage increases. The increasing minimum wage in California provides ASUCD with two options: increase its base fee to students or make significant budget cuts to many of its units.
ASUCD, beyond being the student government of UC Davis, also controls a large number of services used by students. In addition to The Pantry, other ASUCD units include KDVS, Whole Earth Festival and Picnic Day, one of the largest student-organized events in the nation.
One of the biggest proponents of the referendum is ASUCD Vice President Shreya Deshpande who detailed what would be at stake should the fee referendum fail in the Winter Quarter 2020 elections, set to take place at the end of this quarter.
“If the fee is not increased, we will have to cut more units,” Deshpande said via email. “Plain and simple. If we can’t pass it, our ASUCD will be reduced […] to just [nine units] just to balance our budget. And if it’s not passed in the next year, more units will be lost […] ASUCD will no longer be able to provide the basic needs, advocacy, programming services like it used to. It won’t be able to offer students employment like it used to.”
ASUCD is the only Associated Students organization that is financially independent from its campus administration. This means that the organization is funded entirely by students, and receives no support, financial or otherwise, from the administration. While this lack of outside funding may have contributed to ASUCD’s worsening financial conditions, many feel that this was an inevitable event given other circumstances such as changes to the state minimum wage and additional hiring within the association.
The report also maintains that ASUCD is uniquely positioned for continued student leadership, especially when compared with other UC campuses that have experienced similar difficulties but have little governmental autonomy or financial control over their operations.
If the Basic Needs and Services Referendum fails, the report said, ASUCD could be required to give up its independence in some decision-making processes, particularly when balancing the budget.
Alternatives to the Basic Needs and Services Referendum would be the privatization of the CoHo, which would result in a minimum 80% reduction in the student workforce there. Another alternative would be to raise the costs of goods and services provided by ASUCD units. But according to the report, this would incur more debt and exacerbate the financial difficulties of ASUCD.
Many units, like the CoHo and the Bike Barn, do generate income that offsets their operational costs. There are many units, however, that are not profitable. These units incur a budget deficit that is paid for by other money-making units.
The Pantry, an organization that provides food and basic necessities to students in need of assistance, is an example of a non-profit unit that could potentially face significant budget cuts. Ryan Choi, The Pantry’s unit director, explained what would happen should the fee referendum fail in the Winter Quarter 2020 elections.
“The Pantry’s operational budget is roughly $20,000 each year,” Choi said. “That $20,000 goes toward paying for student jobs and for supplying some of our basic operational expenses. It does not, however, cover any of our food costs or basic needs expenses in providing the actual service to students. The [increased] base fee would allow The Pantry to create a solid foundation to create long-term, sustainable Pantry jobs.”
The Pantry serves up to 800 students per day. It is a completely student-run organization that relies on volunteers to keep it operating, but the unit hopes that it will soon be able to pay its volunteers with funding from the pending base fee, making it more sustainable and beneficial for students. Each UC has a campus food pantry, Choi explained, yet UC Davis’ serves far more students than any others “by a long shot,” while also operating with the smallest budget among all the UCs.
“It’s important to recognize that The Pantry utilizes the commitment and dedication of over 100 volunteers each quarter, and, so, to run The Pantry for seven days a week, we need to acknowledge that the university can’t consistently rely on students to commit these hours without compensation,” Choi said.
Choi encouraged students to turn their attention toward this issue, saying although it may not always be obvious, ASUCD plays an enormous role in campus life. He feels that some of the services offered by the organization –– such as basic needs services, advocacy groups and even entertainment services –– are taken for granted, and that students should research the referendum and the organization’s situation to stay well-informed. Choi also believes that students should always support students.
Michael Gofman, who served as ASUCD president in the 2018–19 term, explained that his administration chose not to pursue a fee referendum because, at the time, their main focus was on the Unitrans fee referendum. Gofman also noted that minimum wage was not as high then, giving the organization more of a “safety zone” in terms of its budget.
“The organization as a whole sort of received an added expense, year-to-year, [from the new minimum wage laws] which was really more of a salary increase,” Gofman said. “Because of that salary increase, we now have a much more expensive ASUCD. This fee referendum is essentially a result of the minimum wage increase.”
Gofman said that, given his political views, it may be surprising that he supports the referendum, but he believes that it is the only logical solution to ASUCD’s financial crisis.
“I know I’m making it sound as though, that given everything I’m saying, I should be against the fee referendum, but I’m really not,” Gofman said. “I might be a tax-hating conservative, but at the end of the day, right here, right now, we need a fee referendum. It’s unfortunate that we do, but it’s the reality we have.”
With the start of the quarter and elections coming up, Deshpande, along with countless others in the organization, worry about lack of student awareness and voter apathy. Deshpande is passionate about the organization and simply wants students to recognize what ASUCD encompasses and what is really at stake with the fee referendum.
“ASUCD is a source of food, advocacy, news, programming, events — everything that makes this campus a fun place to be, ASUCD is there,” Deshpande said via email. “The passage of the basic needs and services referendum is crucial if ASUCD is to exist like how it is today. So if students like the Pantry, they like their coffee priced the lowest on campus, they like the Aggie, they like the dope concerts that Entertainment Council puts on, we need to pass this referendum.”
The proposed fee would support all units of ASUCD and help keep them afloat. The units of ASUCD are: the Aggie Reuse Store, Aggie Studios, the ASUCD Garden, the Bike Barn, the Campus Center for the Environment, the CoHo, Creative Media, Entertainment Council, Housing Advising for Undergraduate Students (HAUS), KDVS, Picnic Day, Refrigerator Services, The California Aggie, The Pantry, Unitrans and Whole Earth Festival.
Written by: Claire Dodd and Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article quoted Michael Gofman as saying he is a “fast-leading conservative.” This is incorrect. He actually said he is a “tax-hating conservative.” The Aggie regrets the error.