Under gray skies, around 50 University of Massachusetts students traveled to the Massachusetts state house in Boston Wednesday to lobby the House of Representatives for more funding for UMass. The effectiveness of Lobby Day won’t be known until after the House votes, but the mood was optimistic among the participants, despite the state house being almost devoid of representatives.
Organized by the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), an agency of the Student Government Association and paid for by the office of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Jean Kim, the delegation focused on three issues: Amendment 732 to the House’s version of the budget, proposed by Rep. Sean Garballey (D-Arlington), “to fund salary adjustments for public higher education collective bargaining agreements,” according to the text of the amendment. According to CEPA’s Melissa Urban, a senior management major, those agreements would have to be funded by fee increases if the state does not step in.
Amendment 494, proposed by Rep. Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland) would increase funding for financial aid to Massachusetts students from $86,507,756 to $89,507,756. The UM students were also lobbying on behalf of a bill called “An Act to Reinvest in our Communities,” introduced by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston), which would raise the state income tax rate while providing broader tax exemptions to the middle class.
The current version of the House budget allocated almost $418 million to the University of Massachusetts System.
Lobby Day in Boston was kicked off on the Common with a rally attended by just the students from Amherst, a few UMass Boston students, Chris Dunn, UMass Amherst’s “advocate” in the state house, Ellen Story, who represents Amherst in the House and a man in a teal coat who kept trying to tell everyone about how public higher education wasn’t important because the end of the world is coming soon while holding up a leaflet with Bible verses printed on it.
After the rally, the students trekked up the hill to the state house’s Hooker Entrance, chanting various slogans such as “What do we want?” “Education.” “When do we want it?” “Now.” And “You can’t fight the power, the power of the students, ‘cause the power of the students don’t stop.”
CEPA coordinators organized the students into groups of three to five, gave them a list of representatives to attempt to talk to, gave them scripts, information sheets and papers to leave behind with each representative’s staff. CEPA also conducted hour-long training sessions where students were briefed on the budget process and how to lobby.
One group was made up of senior political science major Ben Bull and freshmen Anna Petsching and Evelynn Bernhardt. They visited the offices of Reps. Tim Madden, Kevin G. Honan and Robert Koczera, but were only able to meet with staff.
“It’s good your group is educated about the [student] loans, because I wasn’t,” said Koczera aide Kevin Botelho. “I’m still paying off my loans.”
The group was unable to get a firm answer regarding the issues it advocated from any of the staffers they spoke with. Amy Goldberg, Madden’s legislative aide, said that the representative was “aware” of all the issues and “looking into increased funding.”
Stephen J. McSherry, a graduate of Westfield State College and legislative aide for Honan, said he was “pretty sure” Honan supports the two amendments, but that he is “not crazy about [Chang-Diaz’s tax bill].”
“I was pleased” with how the rally went, said Amanda Jusino, a senior Spanish major and CEPA’s statewide core team leader. “We worked really hard to try to put this together in a pretty short timeframe, and I think a lot of the students who came out today were really excited to be meeting with representatives and to be advocating for our University.”
Jusino said CEPA chose the issues by working with the SGA and the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) to examine the amendments and determine which ones would be best for students. “We want to pick things that are winnable and realistic,” she said. “But at the same time we want to communicate with students and find out what they want.”
“I thought it went well,” senior Sam Dreyfus said. “I mean, every year we hit the same response, which is, ‘We would really love to fund this stuff, but we can’t fund it at the level we’d like because the budget is so tight.’ That’s why I think it’s really important that this year we’re working on getting this new revenue bill passed. Even though every year we hit the same response, we do get results.”
Jusino said lobbying in 2008 resulted in a $3 million increase for MASSGrant student assistance.
“The work that CEPA was doing in conjunction with PHENOM really gave that group the ability to do a lot of the work it did two summers ago in winning a lot of the stimulus funding,” Dreyfus said. “Basically, the Patrick administration was not going to use a lot of the stimulus funding for public higher education; it was going to use it on some other things and PHENOM figured out that this was in violation of the terms of the stimulus grant. They lodged a complaint with the federal Department of Education and got the Patrick administration to direct the funding toward public higher ed, which actually prevented a fee increase the following school year.”
The CEPA training sessions provide a brief overview of the budget process: after the House votes on the amendments, the budget will be sent to the Senate to be further modified. A conference committee composed of members of both chambers will reconcile both versions and send it to Governor Patrick, who can use line item veto power to nix certain provisions without rejecting the whole budget.
Matthew M. Robare can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.