The Associated Students of Madison plan to move ahead with a proposal to create a multi-million dollar COVID-19 relief fund for UW-Madison students, despite a university statement on Monday claiming that doing so would violate the law.
The proposed legislation, designed to assist UW-Madison students with rent and utilities payments amid the pandemic, allocates between $1.8 million and $4 million to the Madison-based nonprofit Tenant Resource Center (TRC), which would administer the relief fund.
The university’s news release says the proposal “cannot legally move forward,” citing UW-System Policy 820, which covers the allocation of segregated university fees, which ASM would use to fund the program. That policy does not allow for funding from segregated fees to be distributed to individuals except for student employee wages, student government officials’ wages and assistance with students’ childcare.
Despite the university’s statement, ASM Chair Matthew Mitnick said the body still plans to consider the legislation at its Tuesday meeting, and criticized the university for aiming to stop a program he views as essential.
“UW's statement is flawed and demonstrates a lack of proper legal analysis,” Mitnick said. “We need to recognize that UW System's policies reflect the white supremacist system they were created under and need to be interpreted with equity being the top priority. Administration is looking for every reason to block this fund, rather than find every reason to support it, as we very clearly outline in the legislation.”
The proposed legislation creates a second line item within a pre-existing contract between ASM and the TRC. Currently, the TRC runs a Housing and Tenant Support Service center located in the Student Activity Center on campus. The UW administration says that the program is legal because its services are available to all UW-Madison students, but the new fund is not because it would provide money to individual students.
The legislation states that all UW-Madison students could access the fund, but specifies groups who should be prioritized to receive assistance: students who have lost income during the pandemic, receive scholarships for underrepresented students or are not eligible for federal CARES Act funding.
According to analysis by the UW System’s general counsel, shared with the Daily Cardinal by the university, the fund would still amount to “direct financial aid” to an enrolled student, which is specifically prohibited by the policy and includes room and board payments.
While the TRC, rather than ASM itself, would not distribute funds to the landlords and utilities to whom students owe money, the UW System’s analysis argues policy does not allow ASM to delegate a third party to distribute aid
“We would not have been able to get our State Senator, State Representative, 5 Alders, 1 Alder-Elect, and 3 County Board Supervisors as co-sponsors if there were flaws here,” Mitnick said. “This use of segregated university fees complies with the policy, as this is in accordance to admission and registration expenses representing the mission of ASM to prevent undue financial stress for students. Once this legislation passes, we will move forward with the disbursement process to the Tenant Resource Center per our pre-existing contact.”
The university statement did not specify what actions it would take if ASM passes its proposed legislation, saying only that “the fund cannot legally move forward.”
The release recapped the Office of Student Financial Aid’s own efforts to provide students with financial support, as UW is expected to receive approximately $10 million through a second round of federal stimulus support. The first stimulus funding allowed for the University to distribute $10 million to students last year.
ASM will vote on the proposal at its Tuesday meeting, which begins at 6 pm. Students can watch the proceedings and register for public comment at this Zoom link.
Editors note: This story was updated at 5:22 pm, January 26, 2021, to include points from a legal analysis by the UW System’s general counsel