Ariz. group used student fees to lobby for tax hike, sues to keep funding

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Robby Soave Reporter
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A group that campaigned for a tax increase in Arizona has sued the state Board of Regents to protect its funding source: a $2 fee automatically added to the tuition bills of every public university student in the state.

Since 1998, the Arizona Students’ Association has collected $1 per semester from students who attend Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University. The fee was increased to $2 in 2008 and currently brings in about $600,000 per year. Students who don’t want to pay must fill out a form and mail it to ASA to receive a refund.

That changed in February, when the Arizona Board of Regents voted to alter the group’s funding mechanism so that students would have to opt in to pay the fee by checking a box on their tuition form.

A spokesperson for ASA characterized the policy change as political retaliation for going against the wishes of the regents in the November 2012 election. ASA spent over $120,000 actively campaigning for Proposition 204, which would have imposed a one-cent sales tax to raise money for higher education. The regents and Republican lawmakers opposed the proposition, and voters rejected it.

“[The regents] have been giving us a check for fall, summer, and spring semesters for the last 15 years, never had an issue with anything,” said Alexander Marks, government affairs director for ASA, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Then all of a sudden, we donate to a campaign they’ve actively disagreed with, and then that’s when the issue comes.”

In the group’s view, ASA represents the interests of all students in Arizona. The new policy will imperil the group’s funding levels and weaken the united voice of students.

“We represent all college students,” said Marks. “With an opt-in model, it’s a clever way to defund us.”

ASA has filed a lawsuit claiming that the actions of the Board of Regents amount to a violation of students’ free speech rights.

“The Regents violated the First Amendment rights of students by suspending funding to ASA in retaliation for support of Proposition 204,” said ASA’s press release.

The Goldwater Institute, a think tank in Arizona, sees the matter differently.

“Could you imagine the backlash if two bucks a semester were going to the NRA?” asked Kurt Altman, senior attorney at Goldwater, in an interview with The DC News Foundation. “Organizations like the ASA would say you are taking advantage of the uninformed, that no one knows the money is going to political causes, and there would be a huge uproar.”

ASA is not an officially-recognized student group at any of the three universities it claims to represent. Registered student groups are eligible to receive funding through the student governing bodies at ASU, UA, and NAU.

The Goldwater Institute filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit last week on behalf of five students. These students’ First Amendment rights are in jeopardy, not ASA’s, said Altman.

“If the ASA were successful, then that would directly abrogate the First Amendment protections of my clients,” he said. “ It’s forced or compelled speech. They are making you pay this money they are using for causes you don’t support.”

Marks declined to comment specifically on the Goldwater’s motion, but said it was without merit.

“Our fee is the only non-mandatory, refundable fee on your tuition bill,” he said. “Just because you don’t like what we said doesn’t hold much weight in terms of compelled speech. You can opt out.”

The case has yet to go to court. The Board of Regents approved Goldwater’s request to join the lawsuit, and ASA is currently formulating its response.

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