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SA presidential debate centers around budget

SA presidential candidates Jae Kim (right) and Trevor Tobey (left) speak about their platforms at the Thresher- hosted debate in Pub Feb. 19. Ahitagni Das / Thresher

By James Cancelarich     2/23/24 9:04pm

Student Association presidential candidates Jae Kim and Trevor Tobey discussed their vision for the presidency and the SA at the Thresher’s SA debate on Monday, Feb. 19. Candidates for secretary and treasurer, the other contested elections, also took the stage during the night.

Kim said he emphasizes advocacy as a vehicle for change, and Tobey, while acknowledging the importance of advocacy, said that change will come from fiscal responsibility. Kim is currently the Brown College president, and Tobey is the Hanszen College senator.

“I believe [in] financial responsibility, spending money on the things you actually care about and organizational efficiency — not just passing useless resolutions and useless statements, but putting our money where our mouth is on those issues,” Tobey, a sophomore, said.

“I don’t think our greatest strength is with our money, it is with our voices, the relationship we build with administration and the relationship that we build with students,” Kim, a junior, countered. “However much money we have in our budget, administration has 10, 20, 30 times that, so I really want to advocate effectively to use that money from administration rather than the budget we have from SA.”

Kim pointed to his prior experience with the SA as a new student representative, senator and college president as a strength of his candidacy, particularly when it comes to advocating administration to make change. He joked that he was on texting terms, but “not calling [terms] yet,” with David McDonald, the director of Housing and Dining. 

Tobey said that his prior experience with the SA showed him some of the organization’s shortcomings.

“I think that we fail to have inclusive dialogue in our Student Association,” Tobey said. “When I was an NSR, I can’t remember a single no vote happening within the Student Association.”

Both candidates agreed that the SA often pushes out resolutions and statements that have no tangible impact on student experience. 

Another source of debate was the Blanket Tax, an $85 fee that each student pays as a part of their tuition to fund student organizations including the SA. Kim said that the Blanket Tax brings in roughly $400,000 annually, and that he wants to explore raising the tax in the future.

“What I really want to emphasize is that it’s not all pocket money for us. We fund Beer Bike with that, we fund [the Rice Programs Council] with that, we fund the Thresher, Campanile, Honor Council [and] UCourt. All of that is funded through the Blanket Tax,” Kim said. 

Alongside reorganizing Blanket Tax distribution, including continuing the returning of funds from the Campanile, Kim said he hopes to create a unified funding source which cultural clubs can request money from, rather than having it split across the Initiative Fund, Student Activities/President’s Programming funding, the multicultural center and more.

Tobey said he does not believe the SA adequately uses its existing money. He said he would like to reallocate the current budget to better fund cultural clubs and events before increasing the Blanket Tax.

“I think that what we have right now is enough, but we are just not spending it effectively,” Tobey said. “I’m not opposed to raising the Blanket Tax once we’re actually doing good things for students, once we’re a legitimate organization that can say we are making change and working for students.”

Both candidates advocate for late-night dining options as part of their platforms. Tobey said that the SA budget can be used as leverage for administration to make change.

“I’m willing to pay administrative bonuses to staff who will stay late at serveries to keep serveries open later … I also think we should have healthy late-night food options, and I think that the new vending machines are great, but they would be even greater if they were able to take Rice ID,” Tobey said.

Kim responded by saying that he was not sure if administrative bonuses were possible to enact.

“Based on multiple meetings with H&D, the problem is not that they don’t have the money to give the staff more time, it’s just that a lot of the staff rely on public transport, so no matter how much you pay them, they don’t have a means of going back home, they can’t [stay later] … I want to expand H&D’s student worker pilot program which started a couple years ago,” Kim said. He said that the student worker pilot program would have students working the serveries during later hours as opposed to staff members.

In their concluding statements, the candidates spoke about their intentions with the SA presidency, highlighting the differences in their platforms.

“I think that advocacy is action,” Kim said. “There are so many changes I want to see in the Student Association, but building upon the experiences and the tangible projects that I’ve already worked on, I’m committed to further improving the life of Rice students across campus in areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, accessibility and student life.”

“I think that we really have an opportunity here to change the way that the Student Association operates for students,” Tobey said. “I really think that we have failed students over the last few years and we have the opportunity to turn that around. It doesn’t start with advocacy, it starts with action. I made specific plans on the budget to fund the projects that I’m going to carry out. That means mental health initiatives, late night food options, expanded student discounts and $10 printing credits.”

Candidates for SA treasurer Josh Stallings, a sophomore at Duncan College, and Thomas Ngo, a McMurtry College freshman and NSR, further discussed the SA budget after Kim and Tobey exited the stage. Stallings spoke about potentially raising the Blanket Tax to better fund student organizations through the Initiative Fund, which allocates money to finance new events. Ngo said that he was also considering raising the Blanket Tax, but that reallocating the existing budget could better fund organizations as well.

Candidates for SA secretary Chelsea Asibbey, a freshman at Baker College, and Calla Doh, a Hanszen freshman and NSR, also debated their potential role. Asibbey and Doh both discussed increased use of social media to disseminate information and increased use of polling to gauge student opinions.

“Hopefully as secretary, I get the unique opportunity to continue to not just represent the communities I come from, whether it’s first-generation or low-income or the African American community, but allow us to bridge that gap between what the Student Association does and what the student body receives from them,” Asibbey said.

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