Fee committee OKs $124,507 OSPIRG budget

After three years of controversy and heated debate, Portland State’s chapter of OSPIRG has received the funding they have been passionately fighting for.

The Student Fee Committee, the group charged with allocating over $8.1 million in student fees to Portland State’s nearly 100 student groups, including athletics and the Vanguard, voted to allocate the Portland State chapter of the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) a 2006-07 annual budget of $124,507, over $75,000 more than the group received last year.

The fee committee’s decision may put to an end what has been the most hotly contested issue in recent years during the student fee allocation process. With students on both sides of the debate repeatedly bringing out signs and making impassioned arguments at the fee committee’s meetings.

The Portland State chapter of OSPIRG, a nonpartisan organization that, on a state and national level, lobbies on a myriad progressive issues, has been scrutinized by the fee committee in recent years for failing to sufficiently account for budget expenditures. The committee has also raised concerns in the past about OSPIRG’s funding scheme, in which university chapters pay dues that are then redistributed to the campuses, echoing critics that have labeled public interest research groups a covert funding source for liberal lobbying and partisanship.

OSPIRG supporters argue that the group supports many campaigns that benefit students, such as lowering textbook prices, and provides an experience that inspires students towards a lifetime of political advocacy.

Portland State’s OSPIRG has battled the fee committee over the size of its allotted annual budget since 2003, continually requesting over $100,000 and repeatedly being denied. Prior to 2003 the group had received over $100,000 in funds using a different funding scheme. The student group was given $46,803 last year, a sum OSPIRG Chair Amy Connolly told the Vanguard was “definitely not sufficient to be a successful organization.”

Fee committee members in previous years said that it was not clear how the money OSPIRG received was being spent on campus, while OSPIRG accused the fee committee of evaluating the budget unfairly. The fee committee was also concerned that the budget was not itemized by campaign.

OSPIRG members are excited about this year’s initial budget decision, saying that the group can now be fully operational.

“Now we’re going to do even bigger campaign work,” Connolly said.

Traditionally OSPIRG sends dues to their state office, and the money is redistributed as needed to the individual universities around Oregon. OSPIRG has claimed that the same amount is spent at PSU as is sent to the state chapter by the university. The fee committee said last year that the group did not adequately document that the money in fact returned to the campus.

Connolly said that money sent to the state office goes toward paying for the expertise and expenses of advocates and experts who work with students on campus. The funding they received this year will be used to reinstate OSPIRG’s internship program, a campaign for renter’s rights, and the continuation of the clean energy, textbooks, and coast campaigns.

Fee committee member Mary Fletcher said the decision to fund the group at the full requested amount was made in part because of the clarity of the group’s budget, but also because of what the group was able to do with the funding they received last year.

“They got partial funding, they ran two very successful campaigns with partial funding, and they proved, in my eyes anyway, that they could do the work that they needed to do with the funding they had, and proved that they could be a highly successful group on campus with full funding,” Fletcher said.

Fee committee member Mario Campbell, who voted no to initially allocate the group over $124,000, said he was concerned that OSPIRG’s funding was based on personal relationships rather than the interests of students. “I know most of [the fee committee members who voted yes] are friends with [members of] OSPIRG. Maybe there’s a little bit of bias there.”

Campbell argued that the money still leaves campus and that the benefit to PSU students is not clearly evident. “We pay for an office off campus. We pay for phones, we pay to rent the office building, we pay for long distance,” he said, “Other schools are paying for the same campaigns and yet we make up for a bigger pot. We’re basically subsidizing other schools.”