ASUC Senate committee delays vote on publications fee bill

The V.O.I.C.E. Initiative would establish a fee to support The Daily Californian and other campus publications

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An ASUC Senate committee tabled a bill Monday night that would put a referendum on the spring 2012 ASUC general election ballot asking UC Berkeley students to pay a fee each semester to support The Daily Californian and other campus publications.

ASUC senators and members of other campus publications raised an array of concerns with the proposed V.O.I.C.E. Initiative — including that the Daily Cal is the only group pushing for the referendum — and the committee tabled the bill in order to get more input from other student media groups.

The proposed referendum would charge students $5 each semester. A set portion of the money from the referendum would go to the Daily Cal — which does not receive any funding from the ASUC — while another portion would be given to the ASUC to divide among its ASUC-sponsored student media groups and a smaller amount would go toward the Graduate Assembly for funding its sponsored student media groups.

Thirty-three percent of the money generated from the referendum would go toward financial aid, per campus policy.

The bill cites maintaining The Daily Californian’s print editions, as well as the growth of the campus’s publication community and expansion of the publications’ online presence, as reasons for passing the referendum.

With total revenue from the referendum projected at about $350,000, the Daily Cal would receive about $115,500 a year at 33 percent of the total revenue, according to Lynn Yu, campaign manager for the referendum. ASUC-sponsored media organizations would receive about $105,000, with 30 percent of the revenue allocated to them in the original referendum.

The ASUC Committee on Constitutional and Procedural Review will re-examine the bill Monday. Due to the deadline to submit referendums for this year’s elections, the bill will need to pass both the committee and the entire senate next week, according to ASUC Attorney General Deepti Rajendran.

The referendum could also be placed on the ballot if at least 1,000 student signatures are gathered by next Friday, according to Rajendran. Some senators on the committee suggested that the Daily Cal begin collecting signatures in anticipation of the senate not passing the referendum — an effort that the newspaper began Tuesday.

If the Daily Cal continues on the petition route, the referendum would ask students for $2 per semester and would only supply funds to the newspaper and the necessary return to financial aid. Aside from the petitions, the referendum required Rajendran’s certification that the question is impartial and an accurate description of the proposal.

The petition cites the Daily Cal’s significant decline in advertising revenue over the last several years because of the shifts in the journalism industry that have led to the possibility of cutting additional days of print.

“If (students) want to have a (newspaper) that is a constant presence and can continue to print, then this fee is frankly extremely necessary because the reality of us cutting print is more likely than ever,” said Tomer Ovadia, the Daily Cal’s editor in chief and president.

Ovadia said other student media groups were included in the referendum for the broader idea of supporting student voice.

But other student media leaders were skeptical of the Daily Cal’s intentions.

“The (Daily Cal) is only doing this to cover their debt,” said Mihir Deo, managing editor for the Berkeley Political Review. “Whatever percentage of their debts they can cover, that’s what they are going to do.”

Deo said he was unsure if he was going to support the referendum and that he felt the Daily Cal was including other groups for a dual purpose — to bring publications together and increase the political power of the referendum.

Members of CalTV — the only student media group other than the Daily Cal to come to the committee meeting Monday — voiced several concerns with the referendum. Both Co-Executive Director Myles Moscato and Director of News Reena Flores said they would personally vote “no” on whatever was on the ballot.

And at Wednesday’s senate meeting, members of CalTV presented a report citing concerns on why the initiative should not pass.

CalTV Co-executive Director Kevin Cohen said a primary concern was transparency and the allocation of funds.

Cohen said the language of the bill would not require the Daily Cal to publish a full budget report, as ASUC-sponsored groups must, and that the newspaper would receive a large amount of the referendum funds.

Flores told the senate that a large concern of hers was that the Daily Cal had an advertising  revenue monopoly and that other publications do not have the same access.

Ovadia said that over the last few years, the newspaper has struggled to make enough revenues to meet its expenses. The total yearly budget of the newspaper totals about $850,000, according to Ovadia.

“We do hold meetings where we panic and we wonder how we are going to make it to the next day,” Ovadia said, adding that revenues generally come from advertisements and donations. The Daily Cal runs an estimated $200,000 deficit per year, according to Ovadia.

The paper has largely been kept afloat by a $300,000 donation — given out over the course of three years — from the Heising-Simons Foundation, led by Mark Heising and Daily Cal alumna Liz Simons, according to the Daily Californian Education Foundation’s website. The last installment of this donation was given this semester.

The Daily Cal also owes deferred rent to the ASUC.  In May 2009, the Daily Cal and the ASUC Store Operations Board — now named the Commercial and Student Services Board — reached an agreement to forgive half of the paper’s unpaid rent and utilities payments. The paper is expected to pay the remaining about $14,245 this year.

At the time, the newspaper cited “considerable financial strain” as a reason for needing its rent forgiven. The paper had already cut Wednesday publication and most of its editorial pay in 2008.

Deo said he felt the Daily Cal had not been transparent in giving current financial data, since it was only able to produce financial reports from 2009 during one of several town hall meetings held to discuss the V.O.I.C.E. referendum.

Another issue with the referendum was the funding of a publications advisor for ASUC-sponsored publications. According to the senate bill, the publications advisor would receive $65,000 a year from the portion of referendum revenue set aside for ASUC groups.

However, by the end of the committee meeting Monday, it was decided the publications advisor would be most likely eliminated from the referendum.

“The idea of funding a salary doesn’t sit well with people,” said committee member and Student Action Senator Daniel Ternan at the meeting.

Committee member and Student Action Senator Connor Landgraf said he believed the vast majority of the senate would vote no regarding a publications advisor.

If approved by the senate or through petitions, the V.O.I.C.E. Initiative would appear on the ballot along with a referendum to renew the Class Pass, a program that gives students unlimited free rides on the AC Transit and Bear Transit bus systems.

Chloe Hunt is the lead student government reporter.