After the Student Association Blanket Tax Standing Committee referred the Rice Honor Council to a Contingency Committee last spring for investigation into its finances, no further official follow-up has been pursued this year.
As a blanket tax organization, Honor Council receives a blanket tax of $2.00 per student. All blanket tax organizations must submit a budget in the fall to the SA’s Blanket Tax Standing Committee for review. However, last fall, Honor Council declined to submit a budget for the 2013-14 year in a letter from former Internal Vice Chair Isabelle Lelogeais that outlined the organization’s expense report.
“It is not possible for us to create a proposed budget, as our expenses are entirely dependent on factors beyond our control, such as the volume of cases we receive,” Lelogeais, a Jones College senior, said in the letter.
The only fixed annual expense that Honor Council incurs, Lelogeais writes, is a changeover dinner that is a tradition for the organization.
Despite admitting that the changeover dinner is an annual tradition, Honor Council did not include this expense in any of their reports since 2008 save one. The receipt for the 2013 changeover dinner indicates that Honor Council spent $1,400 on a meal for 30 people, which amounts to around $50 a person. In Lelogeais’ letter, however, she said the dinner is an important function for Honor Council.
“While the price on this meal might seem very high ... it is a large number of people and it is essential for the organization,” Lelogeais writes.
In the Blanket Tax Standing Committee meeting held last February, Honor Council maintained that its $29,000 in accumulated surplus and unspent revenue was necessary to cover unexpected costs, but it did not believe that a decrease in the blanket tax amount was needed, according to the Annual Review Report on the committee’s proceedings. Currently, based on the $2.00 per person blanket tax, Honor Council’s self-reported projected revenue for 2013-14 was $7,900.
“In its meeting with the committee, the Honor Council tended toward acknowledging that a blanket tax amount of $1.25 per student per year would be sufficient for the Honor Council to function from year to year while making adequate savings,” the report states. “However, the Honor Council declined to voluntarily request a decrease in funding.”
In the Annual Review Form submitted by Honor Council, the organization stated that it received a blanket tax of $1.00 per student, which is half of the actual value. According to the Annual Review Report, Honor Council leadership did not know their organization’s actual blanket tax amount.
“The Council acknowledged that past leadership has been unaware of its level of blanket tax funding,” the report states. “There has apparently been confusion as to whether the amount was $1.00 or $2.00 per student per year.”
Honor Council released a projected budget for 2013-14 after its meeting with the Standing Committee. Of the $12,448.35 projected expenses, $9,291 was allocated for one-time expenses such as computers, tablets, a printer and a scanner. As per previous years, $1,500 was allocated for the changeover dinner (at $50 per person), as well as $250 worth of gifts from the Rice Bookstore for members. The budget also allocated $815.35 for sales tax on purchases, despite the fact that Rice is a tax-exempt organization.
In a letter to the Standing Committee, Associate Dean of Undergraduates Donald Ostdiek said he supports Honor Council’s blanket tax level.
““I consider [Honor Council’s] use of its blanket tax funding to be appropriate, relevant to its purposes and consistent with its mission statement,” Ostdiek said in the letter.
According to Sid Richardson College President Nick Cornell, the Honor Council’s budget presented concerns over the amount of blanket tax funding the organization received.
“Their operation expenditures are not really that high. In any given year, they do not have substantial fixed costs... most of it’s just variable costs, [such as] pens and [paper],” Cornell, a Sid Richardson College senior, said. “There was a concern that they were getting a fairly large blanket tax that can not possibly be spent on that much paper.”
The Standing Committee referred Honor Council to a Blanket Tax Contingency Committee to further look into the organization’s funding. The purpose of the Contingency Committee, whose members were chosen last April, is to “conduct an in-depth review of Honor Council’s use of its blanket-tax funding,” according to an Executive Memorandum sent by SA President Ravi Sheth.
“The end goal of the Contingency Committee is to determine Honor Council’s standing with regard to the blanket tax review criteria and...suggest a more appropriate level of funding,” Sheth, a Martel College senior, wrote in the memorandum.
The Contingency Committee did not meet last year. The first meeting took place this September, but this meeting was invalidated because it wasn’t publicly announced and therefore violated the SA Constitution. Contingency Committee member Anastasia Bolshakov said she feels that a decision should have already been reached by now.
“I think we should probably have already had a decision by this point, since the blanket tax process has started all over again,” Bolshakov said. “I think there are still a lot of questions about the [SA] Constitution. How we’re supposed to proceed is unclear.”
A contingency committee has never been formed under the current blanket tax review process.
“It’s a really hard process to go through, because there’s never been a contingency committee before,” Bolshakov said.
According to the SA Constitution, a blanket tax organization needs to be found in violation by the Contingency Committee three years in a row before a change in the blanket tax level can be implemented. Cornell, who currently serves on the SA’s blanket tax pod, said this system is not feasible.
“In practice this doesn’t work, because we are students and we only have a four year lifespan at Rice,” Cornell said. “Finding a group in violation three years across administration when we’re only here for like four years overall is just incredibly challenging to do.”
Cornell said one the issues that the pod is looking into is potential reforms to the process so that is easier for students to implement changes to the blanket tax levels that they voted on.
“The blanket tax is a draconian process for all parties involved,” Cornell said. “It involves a ridiculous amount of paper work and a ridiculous amount of work reviewing the paperwork and numbers year after and year only to arrive at results that don’t mean anything.”
According to University Court Chair Brian Baran, the blanket tax review process as a form of student oversight is essential.
“The SA leadership has been very good at advocating for its role in oversight of the blanket tax, but that needs to be accompanied by better following through on that oversight,” Baran said. “What’s the point of having an annual review if we don’t follow up on problems that it identifies?”
Honor Council could not be reached for comment.