Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) MontPIRG, a nonpartisan political organization that’s dedicated to civic engagement and registers students to vote, is out an estimated $50,000 at the University of Montana despite significant support from students to renew its fee.

Leaders of the organization, the Montana Public Interest Research Group, allege political pressure from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education interfered with their ability to collect the fee, approved by students but not the state’s Board of Regents.

The Commissioner’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the allegation.

However, last year, the Montana Board of Regents raised concerns about the fee as an “outlier,” set up to go to an outside group as opposed to a campus-based group.

At the time, Commissioner Clayton Christian said his office supported boundaries around funneling money from students to political organizations, and finding a different mechanism for MontPIRG to collect the fee — and pledged to help.

“We’ll work with the campus, we’ll certainly ask the campus (and) do everything we can to make this year a smooth transition,” Christian said in July 2022.

In existence for 40 years, MontPIRG is led by students and has a mission to empower young leaders. It operates at UM and at Montana State University in Bozeman.

At UM, MontPIRG runs with financial support from students, who voted in a campus election last semester to renew the fee for the organization. The fee, in existence for roughly a decade, requires approval from the Montana Board of Regents.

This year, 82% of students who voted said “yes” to renewing the fee of $5 each semester, along with three other fees, according to results from ASUM, the Associated Students of the University of Montana.

The resolution approving the MontPIRG fee notes it’s optional and refundable.

At its meeting last month, the Board of Regents took up the other three fees students approved — increases for transportation; for the campus newspaper, the Montana Kaimin; and for the Associated Students of the University of Montana.

However, the fee for MontPIRG never appeared on the Regents’ agenda.

The Board of Regents is made up of seven members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, and it governs the public Montana University System.

Helen Thigpen, spokesperson for the Commissioner’s Office, said the commissioner places items on meeting agendas in consultation with the Board of Regents leadership.

“The Commissioner’s Office did not receive a MontPIRG fee proposal in May, and we don’t know if a proposal will be submitted in July,” Thigpen said in an email.

But MontPIRG leaders said their work ensuring student voices are heard and helping youth register to vote has led to political pushback, and as a result, UM never forwarded the fee for consideration.

“Hundreds and hundreds of students came out and voted and overwhelmingly supported our fee,” said Maddie French, board chairperson for MontPIRG. “And the Board of Regents essentially is silencing those students by refusing to hear our fee.”

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MontPIRG leaders point to their contract with UM, a Board of Regents policy, and a conversation with a UM administrator as evidence they should have had a hearing, even if the Regents declined to approve the fee in the end.

Adrian Cook, former MontPIRG chairperson, said he learned the students’ efforts to lobby support for the fee at the ballot box would be in vain after a conversation with Vice President of Operations and Finance Paul Lasiter last semester.

Lasiter, who disputed the Commissioner’s Office had put political pressure on UM and also disputed that he said so to Cook, signs the contract with MontPIRG.

Prior to the May meeting of the Board of Regents, Cook said he requested to talk with Lasiter, and in his office, Cook said he wanted to ask about the fee.

“He (Lasiter) was very frank with me,” Cook said.

He said Lasiter told him from the start there was no chance the fee would be on the agenda. Cook said he asked why, and Lasiter told him “it was a non-starter” with OCHE, the Commissioner’s Office.

“And he said they (UM administrators) had been pressured by OCHE to not put the MontPIRG fee on the agenda,” Cook said.

As outlined in the current contract, if students demonstrate adequate support for the MontPIRG fee, it goes to the vice president of finance, who “upon approval” forwards it to the Board of Regents for consideration.

At that meeting, Cook said Lasiter told him Missoula is a “really progressive” city, and students are progressive as well, although Cook said MontPIRG doesn’t care about people’s political affiliations when it helps them register to vote.

He said Lasiter countered that nine out of 10 students are progressive, so MontPIRG’s “get-out-the-vote campaign is like a voting drive.”

“I said, ‘It’s political is what you’re saying,’” Cook said. “And he said, ‘Yes.’ He was very frank about that.”

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In an email, Lasiter said he tells students that sending the fee to the Commissioner’s Office and the Board of Regents “is a non-starter because it is not a political reality.”

Last year, the Regents approved the fee 7-0, albeit with misgivings and support for a shift.

“(But) there has never been political pressure from OCHE or anyone else regarding this fee,” Lasiter said.

He also said he has no interest in the political leanings of UM’s students: “There is not a situation where we would make … budgetary decisions on this basis. As UM’s chief financial officer, my only involvement with MontPIRG is through the lens of our fee collection process.”

MontPIRG’s contract with UM states that nothing in the agreement “requires” approval of the fee’s renewal by the University of Montana.

However, a Board of Regents policy notes student governments “will be given opportunity” to discuss any changes in fees with the Regents.

The Commissioner’s Office did not respond to a question from the Daily Montanan about how the lack of a hearing on the fee lines up with that policy to take up any changes.

In an email, Thigpen said the Commissioner’s Office hasn’t received any requests to facilitate a MontPIRG fee discussion: “OCHE is always available to assist campuses with any fee discussions as needed.”

Board of Regents Chairperson Joyce Dombrouski also did not respond to a question about whether the Board of Regents is interested in providing students an opportunity to discuss the fee.

Cook said he isn’t under the illusion that significant support from students means automatic approval, either: “I understand the Board of Regents has the authority to rule however they want.”

But he said as a public entity, the Board of Regents should have an open conversation in the public eye about its decisions.

“As a student, I feel pretty disenfranchised because clearly, they only want to see things that align with their agenda,” Cook said.

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Last time the Board of Regents took up the fee, in July 2022, members of the Regents approved it unanimously, but with caveats, according to the minutes.

“While the Board did not take issue with the organizational mission, it expressed concerns about collecting fees that went to an outside organization,” the minutes said. “Encouragement was given to the campuses to help the groups find another collection mechanism before the next approval cycle.”

Additionally, Regent Todd Buchanan reiterated that MontPIRG should strictly adhere to the conditions outlined by OCHE in the written request for approval, including that it does not register as a political committee or engage in lobbying.

In the 2021 legislative session, MontPIRG lobbied on more than 30 bills, including ones related to renewable energy, rental and tenant laws, and voting. It takes many liberal positions.

Its advocacy has rankled some lawmakers given its connection to the Montana University System.

However, in an email, MontPIRG’s Hunter Losing said the organization is representing its members.

“While the issues we lobby on may be progressive, they are the issues that students directing MontPIRG feel represent their values, and again, at no point in time will MontPIRG endorse candidates or political parties,” said Losing, executive director.

He also said past interns and board members have gone on to work with the Green Party, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. (He wasn’t aware of any going to work with the Libertarian Party in recent years, he said.)

And Cook and French said MontPIRG played by the rules this past year.

It refrained from lobbying at the Montana Legislature and didn’t register as a political committee, part of the agreement with Regents and part of its contract from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, French said. And Cook said it sought to win the needed support from students.

“We had trust in the process,” Cook said.

French said she believes Montanans value open government, and she would expect such massive support from students would yield at least a discussion by the Regents.

She described its refusal to date to take up the item as “a cowardly move.” But she also expressed pride in MontPIRG.

“Ultimately, I’m going to choose to see it as a testament to our power,” French said. “We are a group that is effective and has proven to be effective, and this is something that is a signal to us that we need to continue doing the work.”

UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz defended the decision to decline to forward the fee to the Board of Regents, citing comments from board members at the July 2022 meeting.

He noted Buchanan and Dombrouski raised concerns about the one-of-a-kind fee, and he pointed out Dombrouski wanted to be sure “we were not back here in another year.”

“This was the political reality for MontPIRG for the past 11 months,” Kuntz said in an email. “The BOR, which has had zero turnover since the July 2022 meeting, clearly indicated that 2022 was going to be the last time they supported this outlier fee.”

Given that reality, Kuntz said a deputy in the president’s office emailed the MontPIRG executive director in July 2022 after the Regents meeting about a new path for the organization, and she regularly raised the matter with ASUM.

However, it wasn’t clear how, when or who made the decision at UM to decline to forward the fee this year to the Regents.

Kuntz said MontPIRG does not attend the regular meetings with ASUM.

Additionally, he confirmed no one in the administration relayed to MontPIRG that the fee was off the table until Cook requested a meeting with Lasiter and asked about it  — after the election on campus was underway.

Losing, the executive director, said with no communication from UM, OCHE, or the Regents, MontPIRG pursued the fee as it has in past years, and it expected the opportunity to discuss it — whether the Regents approved it or denied it.

“Unfortunately, decisions were made to keep the fee off the regents’ agenda and those decisions have never been communicated to us,” Losing said.

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