Entering MontPIRG-atory 

Activist group feels regents’ wrath

On Fri., March 26, the Montana Board of Regents voted 5–2 to withdraw board support of the funding system currently used by the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) at the University of Montana. Under the system, which has been in place since the 1980s, MontPIRG collects pledges of $3/semester from students who wish to sign up as MontPIRG members. The $3 charge is then added to the tuition bill of participating students by the UM administration in return for an administrative fee from MontPIRG. When concerns arose last fall that the system should be open to all campus groups, MontPIRG agreed and worked out a compromise solution with the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM), which did just that, and presented it to the board on March 26. It passed by a 6–1 margin and lasted about 20 minutes. After a break at the regents’ meeting, Regent Richard Roehm put forward a proposal that would de-sanction the funding system used by MontPIRG altogether. Its passage nullified the compromise proposal and puts future MontPIRG fundraising into a precarious position after next year’s contract expiration.

Why Roehm’s proposal surfaced and passed varies depending on whom you ask, even on the board itself.

“It was strictly a political power play,” says Regent Lynn Morrison-Hamilton, one of two regents to vote against Roehm’s proposal. “The political attacks behind the scene on this issue have gone on since November and are part of an ultra-conservative agenda that’s being advanced through the Board of Regents right now.”

Morrison-Hamilton says she believes MontPIRG came under scrutiny because the group has a history of taking up consumer-oriented issues that “sometimes run against the large corporate interests.”

Regent John Mercer, who supported the Roehm proposal, counters that the decision came down to one of administrative fairness.

“Let’s say there’s a campus organization called ‘Students to Return Saddam Hussein to Power’ and they want to get a voluntary fee collection,” Mercer says. “Well, the students aren’t going to support that kind of group so they don’t get it. But the students in ‘Take Saddam Out of Power’ do. When you think of a campus, you want to protect minority interests.”

ASUM Sophomore Senator Vinnie Pavlish says the board’s decision will have exactly the opposite effect.

“If MontPIRG comes to ASUM and asks for money next year, after their contract is up, we’ll be in a world of hurt,” Pavlish says. “They have nearly campus-wide support, so it’d be worth it for us to pay the money, but it still cuts into the amount we can give to other smaller student groups.”

Regent Roehm says his proposal was based on the idea that the University System “shouldn’t be in the collection business” and that the compromise proposal “still had a lot of vague definitions in it.”

The new policy is neither a prohibition nor a sanction—what Roehm calls “no policy”—and with it expands the gray area far beyond vague, according to Morrison-Hamilton.

She wonders what will happen to a group such as Kappa Kappa Gamma, a sorority that also pays the UM administration to add its fees on to members’ tuition statements.

The sorority will be “a litmus test over whether this is a philosophical objection or a political one,” according to MontPIRG Treasurer Matt Singer.

MontPIRG Director David Ponder adds that the University’s charitable giving program includes a payroll deduction from faculty for various charities, which he says also indicates University involvement in the “collection business.”

Singer says MontPIRG faced a Catch-22 with the board and the Montana Association of Students (MAS), the body of University presidents who made it clear they would not support a statewide policy—which the regents had requested—for fear that a statewide policy would allow the expansion of MontPIRG to other Montana campuses.

MAS President Scott McCarthy, who voted for a MAS request that regents ban MontPIRG’s voluntary fees, says his decision also came down to getting the University System out of the fee collection process.

This rationale is different from that which McCarthy presented in a letter to the Board of Regents in early February, however. At that time, McCarthy, who co-authored the letter with student Regent Christian Hur, criticized MontPIRG as “a highly political and partisan group” and an affiliate of the Sierra Club and Earth Justice. The affiliation claims were attributed to a National Review article by Jonathan Adler which, in fact, does not support the erroneous charge.

Singer suggests that anyone who feels MontPIRG is partisan take their case to the IRS, the agency which grants MontPIRG its 501(c)(4) status.

But these days, McCarthy’s tune has changed.

“We acknowledge that MontPIRG is a good organization,” he says. “This is just about equity, and the University System shouldn’t be in the fee collection business.”

Hur, the student regent, also flip-flopped, stating that he supported opening up the fee collection process to all groups in an email to Ponder dated March 19. One week later, Hur voted to do away with the collection process altogether.

Repeated attempts to reach Hur were unsuccessful as of press time.

If collecting fees is burdensome to the University, you wouldn’t know it from the actions of UM President George Dennison, who supported the compromise proposal that would have opened up the process up to all student groups.

MontPIRG is not alone in its fundraising entanglements. Several PIRGs nationwide have recently faced opposition to their funding mechanisms, including OSPIRG, at Oregon State, which is actually under pressure to convert to the current MontPIRG model.

“The arguments against us keep changing,” says Singer. “When you keep having problems over and over with an organization’s funding and you’re never satisfied, I think your problem is with the organization.”

Still, MontPIRG isn’t in jeopardy, according to Singer, who says that “since the latest attacks began,” the group has brought record numbers of members and interns into its fold.

“This is helping to give us a name in the state,” he says. “So to those who want to come after us, well, thank you.”

mike@missoulanews.com

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