Alternative fee methods scrutinized

Max Rust

A legal attack on the way each student’s $158.01 quarterly fees are divvied up has the potential to rupture the entire process and leave many groups scraping for funds. But the effort is not a new phenomenon.
For years, political interests have attacked a specific type of fee, known as the refusable/refundable fee. These groups, typically socially conservative, state that the funding mechanism is unfair and confusing.
University student Matt Curry and four others prepare for a legal challenge to the fees process. They are fighting the mandatory student service fees for the University YW, the Queer Student Cultural Center and La Raza Student Cultural Center on First Amendment grounds.
And opponents of the refusable/refundable fees say they might follow the student’s legal example if their goals are not met by the regents.
Students are given the option to pay refusable/refundable fees when they register for class. If a student does not check either yes or no, they are automatically assessed the fee and can later receive a refund.
Opponents said they would like to see a donation system — one which does not automatically assess a fee to students who do not indicate a choice.
The refusable/refundable fee is collected by two student groups on campus: The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, an organization that conducts research and lobbies on behalf of public interest issues like environmental and consumer protection, and the Student Legislative Coalition, which lobbies at the capitol on behalf of student interests like lower tuition and availability of financial aid.
This year marked the first time the student services fees committee had control over the MPIRG fee. Formerly, the fee was scrutinized by the committee, but a contract with the University directed whether the group received the money.
Opponents of the refusable/refundable fee cite student confusion as the source of their motivation to change the structure. But fees committee representatives said these allegations are wrong, and that attempts to change the process are founded in the political arena.
William Cooper, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, doesn’t like the fee.
“It’s dishonest,” he said. “Most students who are funding this don’t know they’re funding it.”
Not so, said Kevin Nicholson, the chairman of the student services fees committee. Nicholson explained the committee bases its decision on how the fee is collected by a survey conducted every two years by the committee. The survey uses a sample size of 500 students and has a 70 percent response rate. The last survey, conducted in 1996, showed that 64 percent of the students were aware that the fee is optional, 45 percent choose to pay it, and 88 percent are satisfied with the current method.
“This is the most credible, tangible information that we have relevant to (the refusable/refundable fee),” Nicholson said.
“There are groups that operate at every political level. They operate at the state level, the federal level and even at the student level. And I think we’re seeing that clearly illustrated,” he said.
The two groups say if the funding was changed to a donation system, they would lose most of their funding, because people, in general, do not donate their money if the option is presented.
For example, when asked at registration time if they want more study space on campus, less than 2 percent of students chose to donate. And when asked on state tax return forms to donate to Minnesota wildlife, less than 9 percent of state citizens gave the money.
These two examples were used by the fees committee to determine that the groups would lose funding if the mechanism was changed.
“With any system out there, there’s going to be a certain amount of people that don’t pay attention to what they’re doing. That could be said for ATM fees or doing taxes and such,” Nicholson said. “but the key is, these people have an option to get a refund. There’s always a chance to get the money back.”
Organized opposition
Phil Radtke is a graduate student who sat on last year’s fees committee. Because of a debate among committee members over the fee mechanism, Radtke headed a task force to study the fee.
The results of their study defined several different funding mechanisms and the pros and cons of those processes.
The fees committee used the study this year to determine if the refusable/refundable fee should maintain its current status on campus. The committee voted eight to six to keep it the way it is.
“In my opinion, confusion (about paying) is a huge factor,” he said. “From the students I’ve talked to, confusion is a really important issue. There’s another factor that’s also very important and that is organized political opposition.”
Chris Tiedeman, chairman of the Minnesota College Republicans, sent an e-mail to state College Republican leaders last year defining a step-by-step “attack against theft from students, unethical fees and forced partisanship through deception.”
Tiedeman, who attends St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., has never been asked to pay a refusable/ refundable fee, but said he campaigns to end the mechanism because he’s thinking about attending law school at the University.
“I would like to see the group defunded completely,” he said.
Cooper began writing letters of his own last May to the University Board of Regents, University President Mark Yudof and Gov. Arne Carlson.
Cooper worked as a campaign finance committee chairman under Carlson and his letter prompted the governor to begin writing.
In a letter addressed to Yudof, Carlson stated: “MPIRG clearly is a political and partisan lobby and ought not to receive favorite-funding status from the University.”
Cooper is also the chief executive officer for TCF.
Radtke, who said he has never opted to pay an MPIRG fee, said he questions how much influence Cooper might have with the regents, and how that might result in changes to the fees structure.
The relationship between the regents and Cooper dates back to 1995, when the Board approved a contract with TCF. The deal installed banking service features, including ATM use, on students’ U cards. In return, the University annually receives a minimum of $100,000 from TCF.
Regent Robert Berglund said the regents would not allow any organization to influence their judgment.
“If I became convinced that TCF was using its influence through Mr. Cooper, or conversely, that Mr. Cooper was trying to persuade the board from pressure through TCF, I would move that we terminate our relationship with Twin Cities Federal completely, if that’s what it is going to take to maintain our integrity and autonomy,” he said.
Cooper maintains that he has a legitimate say in how the student-fee system is constructed.
“I’m a taxpayer. I support this thing. As a matter of fact, I’m a supporter of the University. I make significant contributions to the University. I have every right to object to it,” he said, noting that if the Board of Regents doesn’t overturn the fees committee recommendation to keep the fee as is, “we’ll consider litigation.”
Cooper is not the first person from outside the University community who has tried to change the funding structure.
In 1996, Cal Larson (R-Fergus Falls) introduced legislation that would prevent student groups’ fees from being used to hire professional lobbyists.
In 1984, a lawsuit was filed against the University by St. Paul law firm Northstar Legal Foundation. The litigation aimed at removing the contract with the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.
The suit was later dismissed with prejudice.
Student-funded public interest research groups across the country have been attacked with similar legal challenges.
In New Jersey, a 1986 court ruling found that mandatory student fees could not be used to hire lobbyists. However, a 1993 ruling in New York state said that mandatory fees for the NYPIRG could be collected, as the State University of New York-Albany had a responsibility to foster a “marketplace of ideas.”
Another similar ruling on a lawsuit in Oregon awaits a decision from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Minnesota Family Council, the state’s leading conservative Christian advocacy group, has actively campaigned to change the funding mechanism.
In their August issue of Pro-Family News, the organization ran a cover article stating that MPIRG and similar public interest groups have been “blessed” by university administrators and “dominate” fee distribution processes.
Like Cooper, council members have written letters to University administrators, namely Vice President for Student Development and Athletics McKinley Boston.
“We’re not trying to end the groups, we’re trying to change the fees system to make it fair,” said Kent Kaiser, spokesman for the council.
However, Kaiser said he hadn’t heard of the Student Legislative Coalition, which was put together four years ago. Neither had Cooper or Tiedemann.
Political voice for students
Those trying to remove the funding mechanism say they want to make the University more fair to students. However, if the mechanism were removed, students could lose political lobbying power as the fee-receiving groups lose financial means to operate.
Cheryl Jorgensen, president of the Student Legislative Coalition said the proposed changes in the fees process would take away the political voice of students.
“Students cannot afford to lose their voice at the capitol,” she said.
This year, the coalition successfully drove off a bill attempting to take away the student regent position. MPIRG recently released a study called “The Big Fees Squeeze,” which resulted in several pieces of legislation that would have placed restrictions on bank and ATM fees.
“You think about things like the exploitation of students and the social position of students and how it matches all the different forces in society. Students get knocked around from a lot of positions,” Radtke said, “This seems to me like it could be potentially a bad situation for students.”