At a closed meeting on May 16, CHASS Senator Mariam Alkhalili’s senate bill to reduce ASUCR Executive Cabinet (ECAB) stipends by about 60 percent was decidedly rejected by the ASUCR Senate Legislative Review Committee (LRC) in a 5-0-1 vote to table the bill. Alkhalili’s bill, which was shot down by the five-member committee headed by incoming External VP Martin Cuenca, aimed to reduce ECAB stipends back to levels similar to what they were before March of 2013. Senator Alkhalili’s efforts to bring responsibility and accountability back to ASUCR through her bill are an incredibly refreshing display of how ASUCR could be working to serve the student population. The all-but classic ASUCR response however, a closed door vote overseen by an incoming member of ECAB with a clear conflict of interest, is only typical of what we have come to know and expect of ASUCR in recent years.
Vice President of the ASUCR Office of External Affairs Martin Cuenca currently chairs the LRC, a subcommittee that reviews and edits bills before they are debated on the senate floor. The vote to table the bill was done in a closed door meeting with no public record of what was said or seen, where Cuenca himself abstained from the vote and the 5 other members voted to table.
Alkhalili’s bill would reduce the yearly stipend given to the 5 members of the ECAB from $9,900 to $3,960. Two other UC Campuses, UCB and UCI respectively, compensate their associated student presidents with maximums of $4,000 and $6,525. Those two campuses also have total funds of $1,612,105 and $1,475,874 directed towards their student governments respectively, compared to UCR’s total of $752,587. According to this budget structure, a total of 15 percent of ASUCR’s budget, the $12.50 quarterly fee paid by every student, is currently diverted towards stipends for its members.
ECAB stipends were raised to their current levels by a secret ballot in 2013 in the midst of attention and controversy over a resolution entitled Divestment of Companies that Profit from Apartheid, which sparked passionate debate from pro-Israel and pro-Palestine speakers and overshadowed the stipend debate. After the senators voted on the measure, the ballots were shredded.
In the vote to table the bill that would bring stipend levels near to what they were in 2013, Senate Pro Tempore, External VP elect and LRC chair Martin Cuenca has a clear conflict of interest on a bill that would reduce his compensation for the upcoming academic year by about 60 percent. And although he abstained from voting on the bill, clearly recognizing his conflict of interest, the UCR community has little indication of what went on and what was said during that closed meeting that could have influenced the vote of the five senators.
And even though it’s very unlikely Cuenca influenced the outcome of the LRC’s vote, the fact that the vote was done in a closed meeting with no public record does nothing but cast suspicion on what should have easily been an incredibly disappointing, but otherwise routine vote. The way in which this vote was handled was extremely careless, disrespectful to the UCR community and utterly unprofessional. This unnecessary shadiness, mixed with a hint of general ineptitude, is exactly the kind of behavior that sadly has become expected from ASUCR.
Alkhalili’s bill is important because it addresses two fundamental questions. Firstly, whether the members of our executive cabinet deserve these levels of compensation, a question that is intensified by ASUCR’s comparatively small budget and extraordinarily high salaries compared to top student officials at other UCs. Secondly, and more importantly, Alkhalili’s bill asks whether these salaries send the right messages about what it means to be a member of ASUCR’s executive cabinet.
The goal of reducing ASUCR’s expenditures on stipends from 15 percent of the budget to 10 percent is a clear step in the right direction. Comparisons to other UCs with much higher budgets for student governments but still much lower compensation alone provide a very compelling case, but there is also a much simpler consideration. Does the work that ECAB is doing justify the yearly stipends of $9,900?
For comparison, an editor at the Highlander spends an average of 15 hours a week to provide weekly services to the UCR campus through a print newspaper with high standards of journalism and an extensive multimedia network online. For the work they put in for students, a standard editor at the Highlander makes a fraction of the ECAB’s yearly stipend. The chairperson of ASPB makes $8,736 yearly for putting on a wide variety of campus events such as Block Party and Spring Splash, and hosting a number of prominent guest speakers such as Lena Waithe just earlier this month.
Considering how low student satisfaction/involvement is with ASUCR, as evidenced by the fact that only 14 percent of the student population took the short time to vote in the election, it is abundantly clear that ECAB’s salaries do not compare to those of other organizations given the modest benefit ASUCR brings to campus.
The second question brings to mind more fundamental reasons why ASUCR may be performing the way it is. A salary of $9,900 is a really strong incentive to pursue a position in the executive cabinet. To candidly agree with Alkhalili — “These positions do not exist to provide personal gain and financial stability for elected students but rather to serve the student body.” Although the positions are inherently demanding, some are much less so than others, and the $9,900 compensation is extremely generous given the fact that student government positions are meant for students who go above and beyond to dedicate themselves to the betterment of the student body.
By removing this extra-lucrative incentive of nearly 6,000 extra dollars, the UCR community could be much more confident that it was electing representatives who are running for the right reasons. While obviously lowering salaries does make it more difficult for lower-income students to properly support themselves as members of the executive cabinet, Alkhalili’s proposed compensation levels of $3,960 are a fair amount to any member of the executive cabinet who is in their position out of a desire to serve the student population.
ASUCR’s problems are much wider than simply excessively high salaries for the executive cabinet, but Alkhalili’s bill would undoubtedly make a serious impact on the workings of the institution. Furthermore, through her leadership, Alkhalili has clearly shown the potential of a bold and determined ASUCR senator that will push decisive action through.
ASUCR, however, clearly shows no signs of changing its ways anytime soon. By tabling one of the most constructive resolutions of the year and allowing Martin Cuenca, who has a disqualifying conflict of interest with the vote, to chair a closed door meeting of the committee that tabled the bill, ASUCR once again proved that old habits really do die hard.
The Highlander editorials reflect the majority view of the Highlander Editorial Board. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Associated Students of UCR or the University of California system.