Just a few hours ago, a budget committee of the Wisconsin state legislature voted to hobble students’ ability to fund the nation’s oldest and most respected statewide student association, United Council. This could well be the biggest student movement story in the United States this year.

United Council, founded in 1960, was the first of the wave of state student associations established in the sixties and seventies, and has consistently been one of the most successful. UC has for half a century been a strong voice for students in Madison and across Wisconsin, and is a model and mentor to student organizers across the country.

Though United Council has at times been controversial in some quarters, it rests on a democratic base of student support. Campuses join UC by student referendum, and students on campuses that choose to join pay a membership fee of $3 a semester as part of their tuition bill. Individual students have the right to request a refund of the fee if they don’t wish to support United Council, and any time that a student government or group of students comes to oppose UC they can arrange to run a referendum to end their campus’s membership.

This is how United Council funding has operated for decades, and it’s a structure that is standard for student groups nationwide. From state student associations to PIRGs to the US Student Association, it’s a straightforward, democratic system that combines membership accountability with reliable, robust funding. Don’t like the group? Organize against them. Like them? Organize for them. Simple.

Which brings us to tonight.

This evening, the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin state legislature took up an omnibus funding measure for the University of Wisconsin as part of the state budgeting process. Tonight, when that omnibus proposal reached the JFC, it included a provision eliminating the so-called “mandatory refundable fee” through which UC receives its funding. Instead, any campus funding for UC would be on an “opt-in” basis, meaning that individual students would have to affirmatively choose to pay UC dues rather than being given the option of opting out.

For United Council this would mean the virtual elimination of their student funding base. Organizing campus by campus is reasonable and democratic. Organizing student by student, three dollars at a time, is unworkable.

Democratic members of the Joint Finance Committee spoke out against the UC proposal, which was apparently sprung on them without warning, but the chair of the committee refused to allow a vote on a proposal to amend the omnibus measure to remove it. When the vote on the full omnibus — a proposal that provided not only for the UW budget, but also a politically popular tuition freeze — it was endorsed by a 14-t0-2 margin, with just two Democrats standing in opposition.

With the approval of the UW omnibus measure by the JFC, that proposal now becomes part of the state budget which goes to the Assembly and Senate for action. Both houses of the legislature are currently controlled by Republicans, and I am told that budgetary amendments on the floor of either house are uncommon. Final approval of the budget is expected sometime next month.

I’m still getting up to speed on exactly where this proposal came from and what the likely prognosis is now — as I said, the defunding plan took even careful observers of the Wisconsin legislature by surprise, and “careful observers of the Wisconsin state legislature” is not a group I usually count myself among. To my knowledge, there has been no media coverage of this development so far, beyond a few mentions on a Wisconsin politics blog earlier this evening.

I will know more, and report more, tomorrow. But for tonight, I’ll close with this:

The proposal adopted by the JFC tonight, if enacted as law, would essentially defund the nation’s oldest statewide student association, and one of its strongest. One SSA, the Arizona Students’ Association, has already been defunded this way this year. To lose United Council would be an immeasurable blow to the American student movement, and to students’ rights in Wisconsin.

United Council stands at the heart of American student organizing, and has for more than fifty years.

It is, to put it plainly, irreplaceable.

Morning Update | As United Council’s government affairs director Dylan Jambrek (a veteran Wisconsin student government leader himself) noted on Twitter late last night, not only did the JFC pass a two-year UW tuition freeze yesterday, Republican legislators thanked United Council for their work in helping to bring it about, even as they were plotting to defund the organization. “United Council has worked closely with GOP legislators this semester on the UW budget,” he writes, and “this was never discussed. This is simply a backstab.”

Second Update | More on the anti-democratic politics of the defunding vote .