Arizona college group files lawsuit over surcharge

2013-02-13T12:50:00Z Arizona college group files lawsuit over surchargeBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX — The Arizona Students’ Association is asking a federal judge to void a vote by the Board of Regents changing how its fees are collected, claiming it was retaliatory.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, says students have voted, twice, to allow the fees. While collected automatically as part of tuition, students can request a refund.

But the regents voted in November to suspend the fee. The board voted earlier this month to allow the fee again starting with the fall semester — but only on an “opt-in” basis.

The policy also requires the association to reimburse the universities for any administrative costs of collecting the fees.

Attorney Stephen Montoya claims both actions are in retaliation for the association’s advocacy last year of Proposition 204.

That measure, which voters turned down, would have imposed a permanent one-cent sales tax, with the proceeds largely earmarked to fund education, including some money for the universities and financial aid.

It was opposed by Gov. Jan Brewer. And most of the voting members on the board are Brewer appointees.

Montoya is asking the federal court to rule the regents’ action violates the association’s constitutional free speech rights.

“The Board of Regents’ suspension and modification of its policies governing its collection of the ASA student fee is also proximately causing a chilling effect on ASA’s political speech,” Montoya claims. He said the change will cause “immediate, irreparable injury” to the association by depriving it of its only source of income.

Regents’ spokeswoman Sarah Harper said the board will have no comment on the lawsuit until its members are formally served. But she said reasons for the change can be gleaned from comments made last year by board Chairman Rick Myers about the initial decision to review the fees.

Myers said while the $2-per-semester fee is refundable, the process for getting the money back was not understood by many students. And he said some board members questioned “the propriety of providing collecting services through our public universities for a well-financed and active independent political association.”

But Brianna Pantilione, the association’s treasurer, said that ignores the fact that the fee and the opt-in system was approved by students and that the regents had no question about the process until now.

“Suddenly, we contributed to Proposition 204, and suddenly there’s a problem,” she said.

Eddie Walneck, a University of Arizona law student who is on the association board, said any contention the change was brought on by the group’s political involvement is belied by its history.

He said the association supported Proposition 100, the original temporary sales tax hike, in 2010. Walneck said no one raised any question about the association’s involvement in politics when it was backing something supported by the governor. Only when the association took a position contrary to Brewer, he said, did anyone question the association’s funding.

There is one difference, though: The backing of Proposition 100 involved no direct funding; the association donated more than $120,000 of its budget to the pro-204 effort.

Regent Jay Heiler acknowledged that last year’s election did play a role in the decision to review — and alter — the fees.

He said the fee, which generated more than $580,000 from students in the 2010-2011 school year, was a concern before the dust-up over the donation to the Proposition 204 campaign.

“That brought the matter into clear relief for everybody,” he said when the issue arose last year.

Walneck said the change in how the fees can be levied, if not overturned, will directly affect the ability of the association to be actively involved in lobbying for issues concerning students.

If the association has to spend it’s time trying to get students to opt in, it “takes us away from the mission of the Arizona Students’ Association to advocate for students.”

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