Student Group Fee Could Be PIRGed

Gin Dumcius

Over the summer a House joint committee on education met to discuss a bill which could potentially wipe out funding for student organizations supported by waivable fees.

The joint committee on education, arts, and the humanities held a hearing June 26 on H. 2400, a House of Representatives bill that would turn waivable fees into optional ones. Waivable fees are listed on university bills and students have the option to remove the charge. Many forget to. If the bill passes, students will need to check a box to add the fees.

One of the organizations that would be directly affected by the bill is the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, also known as MassPIRG. With over twenty student chapters across the state, including one at UMass Boston, MassPIRG is pulling its resources together to fight and kill the bill. “MassPIRG is scared s**tless,” said one person familiar with the issue.

Nearly ten students from various state colleges and universities testified against the bill at the June 26 hearing. Among those there to testify against the bill were William Powers, UMass Amherst’s student trustee, Jill Hafnagle of MassArt, and Tuan Pham, UMass Boston Student Senate president.

At least one of the students, however, has changed his mind. Tuan Pham, who was approached and asked by MassPIRG to oppose it, now says he was misinformed by the organization. “During my first meetings with MassPIRG in downtown Boston… I felt mislead because they did not tell me the complete truth… all they said was the [House] was considering eliminating waivable fees. What they didn’t tell me was [the House wants] to replace it with a more fair, opt-in system.”

Pham promises that the issue will be one of the first things the Student Senate votes on in its first meeting of the new academic year. A resolution has already been drafted in support of H.2400, says Pham, which will be forwarded to the House committee.

MassPIRG could not be reached for comment at press time.

MassPIRG, in a “Student Fee info” sheet, states that student fees are “fair,” “democratic,” and “enhance the educational mission of the university.”

“Whether it is though [sic] student government sanctioned referendum process, or through allocations determined by democratically elected student government officials, students have a right to democratically decide all sorts of funding systems for all sorts of purposes. Even the process that student fees are allocated enriches citizenship and democracy. Attempts by the Legislature to restrict students’ abilities to democratically decide how we want to fun [sic] groups are anti-democratic,” states the student fee sheet.

Testimony from student leaders and people like executive directors of food banks, who have worked with MassPIRG on hunger and homelessness issues, has poured in supporting the group. UMass Boston Chancellor Jo Ann Gora, in a letter to the committee, stated her support for MassPIRG and its waivable fee. “UMB strives to bring its resources to bear on the economic and social needs of the community, and certainly MASSPIRG efforts to promote voting and active citizenship fit in with this mission. I support these types of activities at all levels throughout the university.”

The state senate’s Robert O’Leary, who represents the Cape and Islands district, wrote to the committee, “I am aware that the fees referenced in this bill are waivable fees and are sometimes imposed on students unknowingly. However, these fees assist students in forming non-partisan, non-profit, student-directed, issue based-organizations.”

The bill is pending before the joint committee. A staffer for Representative James Fagan (D-Taunton), who created H. 2400, said the representative feels it’s a “priority” for him.

Committee staffers say the bill still has a “ways to go.” Within the next two weeks, the chairs of the committee, Senator Robert Antonioni (D-Worcester, Middlesex) and Representative Marie St. Fleur (D-Boston), are expected to meet with the other members. If the bill makes it out of committee, it goes to the House Ways and Means Committee, and from there to the House floor.

UMass Boston students currently pay waivable fees of six dollars for MassPIRG, and ten dollars for The Mass Media, the student newspaper.