Lack of UCF SGA campaign finance laws disservices community

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The UCF SGA presidential election season is underway, and I am already blown away by the intense competition.

This is my first year witnessing the spring campaigns and participating in the election, and I expect the stakes to rise as we near the March election. 

The campus has been transformed into a display of brightly colored, mass-produced yard signs displaying the names of several candidates.

From ongoing social media campaigns to merchandise giveaways, each pair of presidential and vice presidential candidates Karen and Theressa, Brad and Breon, Josh and Jad — is finding a way to distinguish themselves and garner student support.

At the heart of each campaign is one critical tool: money.

And the question of the role money plays — or should play — in SGA elections connects to the broader national conversation on campaign finance laws. Part of this conversation focuses on the extent to which money is a determinant of election outcomes and governmental influence.

Recently, SGA Student Body President Nick Larkins came under scrutiny when Sen. Antione Fields accused him of drawing out the veto of two bills in order to influence the 2018 SGA presidential election.

Fields, the vice chair of the Elections and Appointments Committee, introduced two pieces of legislation — Bills 50-27 and 50-35 — with the hope of having more transparency in the campaign process. The bills are amendments to Title VI, the election statutes that outline campaign rules and the role of the SGA Election Commission.

Bill 50-27, the “Campaign Finance Reporting Bill,” defines “campaign expenses” and calls for the public disclosure of expense reports. Meanwhile, Bill 50-35, the “Violation for Campaign Finance Reporting Bill,” includes the failure to disclose such information and follow established protocol among the list of campaign violations.

Both bills passed through the Senate upon their second reading last November. Larkins vetoed the bills only for the Senate to overturn his vetoes in January. However, days before the start of spring 2018 presidential campaigning, Larkins filed, and later retracted, a censure against Speaker of the Senate Joshua Boloña in which Larkins claimed the vetoes weren’t properly overturned.

As of this writing, the proposed legislation isn’t in effect.

I thought the introduced bills were a step in the right direction when it comes to promoting transparency within SGA. UCF doesn’t have any statutes requiring student presidential or senatorial candidates to disclose their campaign spending. Nor are there limits to the amount of money students can spend on their campaigns.

Clearly, we are behind the curve, especially when one considers the fact that schools such as the University of Florida (UF) and Florida State University (FSU) require candidates to report their expenses within a certain period of time. The FSU student body statutes also list spending limits for campaigns. Presidential and vice presidential candidates have a $7,000 cap, while senatorial candidates have a $500 cap. 

Students should be able to see how much money is being poured into campaigning and what that money is going toward. I would even venture to go a step further and require the disclosure of donors so students can see whose interests are being represented.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where money is power, where money buys influence and elevates the voices of those with the deepest pockets.

The current system amounts to a free-for-all in terms of how much money is spent and on what, and the lack of data on expenses and contributions to campaigns for such critical leadership roles is unsettling to say the least.

Strong, enforceable campaign finance laws and reforms are supposed to help ensure leaders are held accountable to the people they are elected to represent. Additionally, such laws are intended to level the playing field a bit, making running for office more accessible to candidates who wouldn’t have been able to run otherwise due to their inability to outspend their opponents. 

That last point is particularly important at the collegiate level, a time when many students can barely afford to pay for basic living expenses, let alone pour untold sums of money into a presidential campaign.

Who knows how many students haven’t run for office because they couldn’t keep up financially with their would-be opponents? 

UCF is an enormous school whose impact extends to and beyond the Orlando community. The student leaders we trust with our money, who are responsible for allocating funds to organizations and passing legislation with tangible effects on campus, wield real power.

They need to be held to a higher standard, and it’s time UCF students start doing just that.

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