A funding battle between the Portland State chapter of OSPIRG and the Student Fee Committee took an unexpected turn Tuesday when the committee received a letter from the student body president and vice president advising them to discontinue funding the group entirely.
The seven-student-member fee committee, which oversees allocation of over $7 million in student fee money to student groups and athletic programs, was scheduled to make an initial decision on OSPIRG’s 2005-06 budget during a meeting that evening.
The committee ultimately voted four to three to temporarily fund OSPIRG at $0, with a recommendation that the group eventually receive about $40,000. The group had initially requested $125,135.
The quarrel between Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) and the SFC began when the committee gave the group $21,000 in student fee money in 2003. Until that year, the group had received over $100,000 per year. Currently funded at $33,765, the group has continued to argue that its level of funding is not enough to sustain the school’s chapter.
With the budget conflict now in it’s third year, factions supporting and opposing funding the advocacy group have become deeply entrenched, raising questions concerning to what degree OSPIRG’s past affects the current SFC’s funding decision.
President Christy Harper said that she and Vice President Ryan Klute, who were both Student Fee Committee members last year, wrote the letter to ensure that current SFC members were aware of what they say is a long history of OSPIRG abuses of SFC guidelines on the spending of student fees.
The letter repeated concerns that have been raised previously by the SFC about OSPIRG’s budgeting scheme, accusing that the group has repeatedly failed to use the committee’s budget tracking program, called Banner, to document expenditures, despite promises to do so.
OSPIRG Chair Jamie Hogue and Vice Chair Amy Connolly insist that the group has been using Banner in compliance with the SFC’s internal funding guidelines. However, an examination of the group’s Banner records shows that the group has only documented expenditures totaling $4.37.
Both Hogue and Connolly indicated frustration with their relationship with the SFC, saying that it seems the committee is determined to come up with reasons to deny OSPIRG their requested funding.
"It is obvious that they came into [the budgeting process] with their minds made up," Connolly said.
The letter from Harper and Klute was an unorthodox move. Student government executive officers have not traditionally advised the committee on funding decisions during budget deliberations.
OSPIRG campus coordinator Meredith Small said that while the group had anticipated a difficult fight for funding, the letter took them completely by surprise.
"We didn’t know this was coming," she said.
Student Fee Committee Chair Tracy Earll said that she has never seen a letter of this kind during her three years in her position, although she found the letter to be appropriate "given that [Harper and Klute] are informed student leaders."
When asked about the letter’s potential to influence the SFC’s funding decision regarding OSPIRG, Earll said that she was already "aware of all the things mentioned in the letters," but also said that the letter could have influenced less experienced committee members who were not familiar with the long history of the funding battle.
SFC member Erin Devaney, who has served as the committee’s liaison to OSPIRG and supports funding the group, expressed disappointment that the issues in the letter were raised the day the committee was expected to make a funding decision on the group.
Despite the last minute appeal from Harper and Klute, most committee members seemed to already have a clear idea on where they stood on the OSPIRG funding issue.
"Every person on the SFC came into this with their minds made up," Devaney said.
The advisor issue
OSPIRG leaders also expressed concern that the firing of Carol Martin, the group’s advisor, earlier this month may have had a detrimental effect on their ability to effectively argue their case to the fee committee.
Martin, who worked as the group’s advisor for Student Activities and Leadership Programs (SALP), was one of OSPIRG’s strongest advocates within the university administration, according to Connolly.
"She was always on the ball with things," she said.
Martin was abruptly transferred from SALP to the office of Affirmative Action over winter break and informed her employment contract would not be extended beyond June 30.
Since Martin’s departure. OSPIRG members have felt poorly represented by their interim advisor, SALP Director Tonantzin Oceguera, Connolly said.
Oceguera would have been able to offer proof that OSPIRG had been using the Banner budget reporting system Tuesday, but was not at the SFC deliberations because she was attending a conference, according to Connolly.
"She basically failed us," Connolly said. "The one thing we needed was for her to put that we were on Banner in writing."
However, it is unlikely that the SFC’s decision would have been altered by proof that OSPIRG was using the budget reporting program, according to Earll, who insists that Martin’s firing had "absolutely nothing to do with the SFC’s funding decision."
In past years, the SFC has justified its funding decisions on the basis that OSPIRG has requested far more money than other student groups without being able to show to the SFC’s satisfaction that the extra money benefits students. The committee has also expressed concern that OSPIRG may violate SFC guidelines because of the group’s unique funding scheme.
The five OSPIRG chapters at state universities in Oregon use their budgets to pay dues to the OSPIRG’s state offices. The money is then redistributed to the individual schools as needed.
The committee has asked OSPIRG to show that their student fee funding is spent on projects specifically affecting PSU. Some committee members have said that the group still has not adequately done so,
Small characterized this as yet another excuse to deny the group funding.
"We can very easily come back with our budget broken down by campaign," she said, "and it wouldn’t make a difference."