The body that voices the students’ views to administrators and elected officials could be carrying out its top priority — lobbying legislators — illegally.
The UNC Association of Student Governments, which includes delegates from 17 UNC system institutions, has been meeting with legislators and presenting them with petitions to keep tuition low for students.
But association President Atul Bhula was unaware of a N.C. law requiring organizations that fulfill certain criteria to register with the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office before lobbying.
Bhula received a notice from the office Wednesday reminding him of the law. The department has not yet determined whether the association fits the definition of a lobbyist group.
If the organization fits the definition of a lobbyist group and does not register, it could be banned from lobbying for up to two years as well as face a $5,000 fine, spokeswoman for the office Liz Proctor said.
According to the statutes, a lobbyist must spend more than 5 percent of his or her time per month actively trying to influence legislative or executive decisions.
If lobbying is the association’s top priority, they could fall under that category.
Bhula’s stipend as ASG president is $7,000 per year, which is paid for by student fees — a $1 fee from every student in the UNC system. Other officers in the organization are paid $1,000 to $5,500.
Christy Tillery, a paralegal with the N.C. Ethics Commission, said true unregistered lobbyists violate state law.
The state law requiring organizations to register went into effect in 2007.
Continued lobbying without being registered in North Carolina is a misdemeanor offense.
“I never registered, and I’d be skeptical of anyone saying they have to do so,” said former ASG President Greg Doucette.
Doucette said he doubts that ASG members fit the definition of a lobbyist because they don’t spend that much time persuading legislators.
“Right now the legislation isn’t even in session until January,” Doucette said. “Basically we’ll only have a couple of months to lobby.”
Doucette said an argument could be made that because ASG officers receive compensation, they need to be registered.
“Everyone who does not receive a stipend doesn’t even meet the definition of a lobbyist because no money is changing hands,” Doucette said.
Bhula said he had not looked into registering with the state earlier because he was unaware that the organization fit the criteria of a lobbyist.
“Regardless, we’re going to lobby this year. We’re going to get that taken care of as soon as possible,” Bhula said.
The organization plans to have someone lobbying in Washington, D.C., but focus for this year will be state legislators, he said.
“At the federal level we’d be looking at Pell Grants to ensure we have more money,” Bhula said. “The federal stimulus money is going to run out so it’s a hard battle to fight there.”
Bhula said he plans to discuss the registration process at the organization’s next meeting Saturday so ASG can lobby legislators in the future.
“We hope to more effectively use our dollar for internal investments,” Bhula said.
“Lobbying in North Carolina is our main concern.”
Proctor said that despite the group’s past lobbying actions, the state department was unaware of the association’s actions with legislators.
“This is the first time that we have heard anything about it,” she said.
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