ASM Constitution delivers necessary reform

[This originally appeared in the Feb 19th issue of the Badger Herald, as part of their “ASM Constitution Bonanza” issue.]

Next week, students will have the opportunity to vote “Yes” and endorse the most serious reform effort of student government since the creation of Associated Students of Madison 15 years ago.

These constitutional reforms are the result of an unprecedented effort to listen to students. In fact, the constitutional committee took criticism from this paper for spending too much time listening to students. What the constitutional committee heard, again and again, was that you wanted to be able to elect a president of ASM. You didn’t want the public face of ASM to be selected internally. You also said that you wanted this democratically elected resident to be a full and equal participant in the government. Students want someone who can stand up for them, and have the moral backing that comes from being directly chosen by the student body. At the same time, you told us that broad student participation was critical if ASM was to have any real legitimacy. The new constitution delivers on those hopes.

When ASM was created, its organizational structure was borrowed from Wisconsin Student Public Interest Research Group. WISPIRG’s system works great for WISPIRG, and they’ve been very effective with it, but ASM is a different organization with a different focus and set of responsibilities. WISPIRG’s vibrant and organic system becomes a muddled and ineffective Politburo when it is polluted by the extra structures ASM requires. Rather than try and squeeze in yet another bureaucracy to cope with a new president, we borrowed the more familiar executive/legislative system and did away with our old system. The new system is instantly familiar to students, even if they’ve never given a thought to ASM. Although I’m sure a handful of our opponents from the International Socialist Organization will disagree, the executive/legislative systems used in all levels of government are not impediments to democracy. We have the same checks and balances that Schoolhouse Rock teaches, as well as a few new ones for the peculiarities of University of Wisconsin. The new constitution is careful to ensure that neither branch can function long without the other.

The new constitution also adds new protections for students. Under the current system student organizations that receive funding from seg fees have absolutely no protection from the whims of ASM, unless they can prove that a decision was made because the group had a particular political or philosophical viewpoint. The new constitution adds two major new safeguards for student groups. First, it guarantees that procedural changes can’t be used as a quiet backdoor to defund organizations when no one is looking. Second, the Senate and president can only give an up or down vote on the entire set of budgets. Opponents of the new constitution claim that this process gives the president an unfair advantage in the “conference committee” that resolves veto disputes. However, our opponents apparently aren’t much for math. The president only has control of one-third of the Appropriations Committee, and has no say in who Appropriations sends to the conference committee. There are many other new protections in the constitution, but one worth highlighting is future referenda must ask questions separately. For example, the 2006 Union vote would have had to be two questions, not one, and students could have voted against Union South and for Memorial Union. This is an important protection with a Natatorium and SERF referendum coming in a year or two.

The opponents of the constitution claim that the changes are a threat to grassroots work and the accessibility of the student government. This claim shows a puzzling lack of understanding of what grassroots efforts really are. Grassroots efforts do not come from the structure of an organization. I challenge anyone to show what creates a grassroots approach in the constitution that ASM has been operating under for the past 15 years. The reality is that the grassroots get their start when committed people reach out and persuade others to join them in a greater vision. Grassroots action, and a government that invites and relies on students to join it in carrying out its goals, are core values of student government at UW. Nothing in the new constitution diminishes or impedes that. So long as we keep electing students who are committed to this philosophy the grassroots have nothing to fear from a revised constitution. The president would be a fool if he or she abandons this approach, and will find themselves running a lonely and irrelevant government if they do.

In the end, both sides agree that the only way to truly complete ASM reform is to elect dedicated people who want to actively participate in the process. Above all, no matter which way the vote on the constitution goes, the next session of ASM will be expected to continue with reform efforts. Failure to meet these expectations will condemn ASM to the wilderness, most likely to perish there unnoticed. Students deserve better, and a “Yes” vote for the constitution delivers that change.

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