ASUC executive office misuses its discretionary funding

Siyu Zheng/Staff

While many student groups financially struggle to get by, there are a select few within the ASUC for whom money is no object. From the ASUC’s $2 million budget, $52,000 is allocated for discretionary funding, which is given to senatorial and executive offices in amounts ranging from $500 to $14,500. How the $52,000 is spent is not easily accessible information, but the name “discretionary funding” itself should draw suspicion.

As a finance intern for the executive vice president, I processed reimbursements and observed the financial activities within my office. From my experience, much of the money was spent irresponsibly. Here are some examples of how some of my office’s $8,000 in discretionary funding was spent.

Pizza, chips, bagels, fried chicken, drinks and other food items were regularly purchased. These expenses were justified as being for meetings, but sometimes food was simply available to staff members hanging out in restricted-access ASUC spaces. Restaurant trips — including a “meeting” held at Muracci’s Japanese Curry & Grill — were also eligible for reimbursement. The ASUC bylaws typically prohibit the spending of money on food, but executive officers, including the EVP, received a waiver that removes the restrictions on spending listed in the ASUC bylaws. The chief financial officer granted the waiver over the summer, while the senate was not in session.

Several staff members purchased green books for themselves and their friends in the office. The expenses were officially listed as being for “office use” on the CalLink records, and for the “EVP department” on the office’s internal reimbursement spreadsheet.

One of the most questionable reimbursements was for a “Staff Development and Retention Retreat” I attended Oct. 4 at the Jaguar Karaoke Bar on Telegraph Avenue. Despite being an “EVP office staff event,” only two interns were present (including myself), and several participants were ASUC officials who were not part of the EVP’s office. Surprisingly, the cost of the private room in the karaoke bar was passed on to the EVP finance department: A reimbursement from the discretionary fund was requested and issued for the Saturday night excursion.

Looking through this year’s spending, I noticed the vast majority of expenditure was on some form of food, drink, restaurant or other perk.

It should be painfully obvious that there are hypocritical double standards at play. While clubs and other student organizations face limited funding that can only be used for specific purposes, ASUC executive offices enjoy generous funding — with limited oversight — that can easily be wasted. While other student groups are prohibited from spending their funding on food unless they obtain waivers, the people within the ASUC are seemingly able to use their funding to buy meals at restaurants and nights out at karaoke bars.

Keep in mind that my knowledge of discretionary funds is limited to those of one executive office within the ASUC. Previous offices appeared to be more responsible. According to records I obtained from 2013 to 2014, that year’s EVP office spent its discretionary funding on filing cabinets, air conditioners, patio tables and a new projector. Not a single dollar was spent on food or partying.

In other offices, discretionary funds have another purpose. Former academic affairs vice president Valerie Jameson said the funds give officials the ability to execute platforms and campaign promises that otherwise would not have funding.

When in office, she directed her office’s discretionary funds toward the RISE scholarship, which benefits undocumented students who are ineligible for financial aid through the FAFSA application.

Jameson told me that before she took office, the funds for the scholarship had been depleted and weren’t sufficient to grant even one scholarship. While in office, she spoke with her staff about the future of the scholarship and decided to commit her discretionary funding to ensure that at least six students received the scholarship.

Jameson explained that from a financial standpoint, executive offices — such as student groups — are at the mercy of spring budgeting completed the previous year. If the previous year’s executive did not allocate funding for an event or program, the following year’s executive does not receive the funding for that event or program.

Within offices like that of the AAVP, discretionary funds have become a critical mechanism for carrying out the goals of the elected official. Unfortunately, creating a pool of money with few rules and minimal oversight leads to opportunity for abuse. As Jameson said, each office is able to essentially “set the parameters” for how funds are utilized.

It is hypocritical that the ASUC had a referendum on the ballot asking for money when there is clearly wasteful spending that could be cut. Discretionary funds need to be reformed — either slashed dramatically or made more transparent. A detailed and true record of every expense should be made available to all students, not buried on a CalLink Web page to which only a few interns have access.

Money classified as “discretionary” should instead, perhaps, be set aside in a fund to which executives and senators can gain access for worthy uses. Creating a fall budgeting process for executive offices could resolve the issue of budgets being established before the new officials enter office.

At the very least, executive officers and senators must be held to the same standards and rules as the rest of the student body. Unwarranted perks — such as snacks, green books, restaurant meals and outings at karaoke bars — must be eliminated. Bylaws and regulations must be obeyed as intended. Until serious changes are made, I would be reluctant to support any increase in ASUC funding and suggest that the student body be equally wary of future ASUC-imposed fee hikes.

Taylor Lee is a freshman at UC Berkeley and a former finance intern in the ASUC Office of the Executive Vice President.

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Correction(s):
A previous version of this op-ed stated that the 2012-2013 EVP’s office purchased certain office items with its discretionary fund. In fact, the purchases were made by the 2013-2014 EVP’s office.

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this op-ed also stated that former academic affairs vice president Valerie Jameson directed funds from her office’s discretionary funds toward the RiSE Scholarship Foundation. In fact, the funds were directed toward the RISE scholarships, scholarships handed out directly by the ASUC AAVP’s office to students not eligible for federal financial aid, like undocumented students. The RiSE Scholarship Foundation is a nonprofit unrelated to the ASUC that rewards students with learning disabilities.

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