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The Carletonian

MPIRG Fee Opinion Overload: The “Yes” Camp

<ir of the MPIRG Board of Directors, I pay close attention to the discourse surrounding our organization at each of MPIRG’s eight member campuses. This week it was brought to my attention that current and former members of the Carleton student government have launched an opposition campaign against MPIRG, our work, and our financial practices. MPIRG has a long track record of winning public policy victories in Minnesota, has made substantive changes to campus life at all of its chapters, and has engaged and worked with Carleton students to achieve these victories – all of which were made possible by the generous support of Carleton students who have elected to support MPIRG, through the only refusable/refundable fee on campus, for over 38 years. While calling into question MPIRG’s legacy on campus, these students inaccurately claim that the funds from MPIRG’s chapter at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities underwrite the work and staff time we dedicate to Carleton College. In addition to the fact that this is blatantly untrue, I have a hard time reconciling how this group of students, which has no direct affiliation with our organization, would make such presumptuous claims about the finances of a nonprofit organization of which they know nothing about. Finally, as the outgoing chair of the University of Minnesota system-wide student senate and active Executive Board member for the Minnesota Student Association, I take great pride in student government associations, the power and privilege of their members, and the information they choose to publicize. With these important responsibilities also comes the duty to maintain the integrity of the institution through the conduct of its members. I hope that both current and former members of the Carleton Student Association share these same values.

Ryan Kennedy

Board of Directors Chair

Minnesota Public Interest Research Group

Each year, a referendum goes on the spring ballot asking students whether they support allowing MPIRG (Minnesota Public Interest Research Group) to continue utilizing the refusable/refundable fee system. This year, the elections will be held this Sunday, May 17 through Wednesday, May 20. If the student body does not approve the fee, Carleton will lose an incredibly unique and important organization that has united Carleton students with other students across the state to work on issues such as the environment, affordable housing and homelessness, and fair trade since 1971. I am encouraging everyone to vote “yes” on the MPIRG referendum.

Every year at MPIRG’s Issues and Actions Conference, any student who pays the MPIRG fee is invited to vote on the issues that MPIRG will focus on in the following year. This April, our students decided that next year MPIRG’s statewide priorities will be to work to improve our healthcare system, expand public transportation, and eliminate dangerous chemicals from products that people use every day. Not only will students work on these and other issues on campus, they will also work with various decision making bodies to pass meaningful policy changes. This provides us, as students, with valuable experience being engaged in the political process and helps us have a meaningful impact on public policy.

Earlier this year, calls generated by Carleton students were instrumental in encouraging Senator Dahle to vote in favor of the Clean Cars Bill. Last week, MPIRG as a whole generated over a thousand calls to Governor Pawlenty—and Carleton alone generated 150 calls— in support of two bills that phase out BPA and regulate other dangerous chemicals in children’s toys. This week Governor Pawlenty signed these bills, making Minnesota the first state to institute such legislation.

MPIRG’s victories go back three decades, ranging from the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1978—still the nation’s sole ‘paddle-only’ wilderness area—to helping pass Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard in 2007. At Carleton, MPIRG succeeded in bringing fair trade coffee to campus and creating green wars, which has since became a nationwide event and competition. MPIRG students at Carleton have also worked on issues such as affordable housing and homelessness, workers’ rights, and preventing sexual assault and domestic violence.

However, MPIRG students would not have been able to accomplish any of this without their staff. It takes a tremendous amount of work to develop, run, and win a grassroots campaign, and students simply do not have the time, and often the skills, to run a full campaign by themselves. Instead, we, as Carleton students, choose to assess ourselves a fee that helps pay for a set of professional staff to teach us these skills, work tirelessly researching and advocating for the issues that we have chosen, and work collectively with other college students across the state.

MPIRG’s staff members spend their time monitoring bills, lobbying Senators and Representatives, researching the issues, developing materials, representing students in statewide coalitions, and training students in grassroots organizing tactics. For example, Carleton’s campus organizer gives trainings such as how to lobby, how to structure a successful campaign and how to effectively use the media. Our campus organizer and organizing director helped Carleton students determine exactly when we needed to call Senator Dahle and Governor Pawlenty in order to have the most impact to encourage them to support toxic-free children’s toys and clean cars standards. Almost four decades of victories prove that teaming passionate, energetic students with a team of professional staff is an undeniably effective combination to win grassroots campaigns focused on winning concrete public policy victories in the public interest.

MPIRG staff members are accountable to students on campus as well as the State Board of Directors, which is comprised entirely of students from each of MPIRG’s eight campus chapters. Our staff focuses their time on the issues chosen by students at the Issues and Actions Conference, the development and needs of individual campus chapters, and organizational priorities identified by the student-run State Board of Directors. MPIRG is always accountable to students on campus, the Carleton administration, Minnesota state law governing nonprofit organizations, and the Internal Revenue Service.

As a voting member of Carleton’s student body, you are part of an important democratic process in deciding whether to continue allowing MPIRG to have a refusable/refundable fee system. If the referendum does not pass, MPIRG would have a very limited presence on Carleton’s campus. Carleton students would no longer receive the support of MPIRG staff members, the benefits that come from being a member of a statewide, nonprofit organization, and would essentially end a 38 year legacy of protecting the environment, advocating for affordable housing, protecting consumers, and standing up to powerful interests.

Any conscientious global citizen, as I believe most Carleton students are, would say it is worth a $7.50 optional student fee each year to work with a set of professional staff to help us win concrete victories on issues that are important to you and other students at Carleton and across the state. Last year, 84 percent of Carleton students paid the MPIRG fee. If you choose to pay the fee, every cent of your money goes toward empowering Carleton students and helping create social and environmental change. If this is not worth it to you, you still have the opportunity to refuse or refund your MPIRG fee. The MPIRG student fee is democratic, transparent, and maintained through a democratic process. Even if you do not support MPIRG, surely other Carleton students should have the right to share in MPIRG’s successes by paying the fee if they wish to do so. By voting yes on the MPIRG referendum, as the majority of Carleton students have done each year since 1971, you give each student the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they wish to support MPIRG. Vote for accountability. Vote for Democracy. Vote for inspired organizing and advocacy. Vote “yes” on the MPIRG referendum.

-Michelle Hesterberg is a second-year student and MPIRG Co-chair

-Sarah Berlin is a first-year student and MPIRG Co-chair

-Christa Owens is a first-year student and MPIRG Environmental Task-force Leader

I don’t know whether my response is typical, but I’ve been fairly overwhelmed by the sudden flurry of pro- and anti-MPIRG Reusable/Refundable Fee literature that’s sprung up on campus in the last three weeks. I guess it is to a certain degree the inevitable result of questioning a lobbying organization—surprise, surprise, they lobby back! Despite the Sayles trifolds, the posters and—my favorite—the bathroom flyers, I am convinced that MPIRG is fighting a different battle than the one Lindsey, Pablo and Caitlin proposed in their May 1st Viewpoint article. Following a substantial conversation with the tabling MPIRG representatives on Wednesday, I would like to try and reframe the debate so that the referendum can actually represent an informed choice by the student body.

My reading of the Lindsey, et al. Viewpoint was in no way that MPIRG is ineffective; rather, they were arguing that MPIRG should have to use the same CSA appropriation process as every other student organization. The fact that our $7.50 is being spent on activities largely not related to the campus itself, and personnel salaries and office supplies in particular, is to Pablo, Caitlin and Lindsay an indication that greater transparency and accountability is needed.

In response, MPIRG has released a slew of material fighting against an imaginary foe. The Sayles trifolds list all of MPIRG’s nearly 40 years worth of successes, while the posters end with “Vote Yes. It works.” The problem is, nobody was saying otherwise! I asked the tabling students and MPIRG representatives about this and have come to two conclusions:

1. Yes, the MPIRG fee basically pays for a professional lobbyist and her officework.

2. That’s something worth voting “yes” for.

As it turns out, the MPIRG fee is specifically intended to pay for student-run lobbying efforts on environmental and social justice fronts that represent the beliefs of most of the student body. That’s something that can’t be funded by CSA, and shouldn’t be. An optional $7.50 donation, on the other hand, is a perfectly legitimate way to fund lobbying on our behalf. Because we in the Carleton bubble at the Carleton pace rarely have time to fight legal battles for what we believe, I am more than willing to pay $7.50 for someone to do that for me.

In short, Lindsey, Pablo and Caitlin are right—MPIRG’s use of our donations is fairly opaque and certainly deserves periodic student scrutiny. At the same time, MPIRG is doing important work on our behalf, work that apparently cannot be funded through the traditional CSA process, and should, in my opinion, be allowed to solicit those donations. It is unfortunate that our donations have been paying for them to lobby us, and it is equally unfortunate that that lobbying has been answering the wrong question. Nonetheless, as a fairly impartial student observer, I plan on voting to retain the optional MPIRG fee and encourage you to do the same.

-Jon Fraser is a third-year student

The MPIRG fee has been hotly contested in the Carletonian for the past couple of weeks. In response, I would like to (re)emphasize that the fee itself can be refunded or removed from your tuition at any time. If you don’t want to spend $7.50 a year, you don’t have to. It’s that simple.

I agree with some of the sentiments posited in the initial dissent: MPIRG should be more vocal and transparent about what they are accomplishing and how they are allocating funds. Nevertheless, their efforts to create a more sustainable and responsible community have been productive, progressive, and successful. Without funding, Carleton’s chapter will likely cease to exist. Carleton students will lose their voice in determining critical state- and nation-wide issues.

Rather than voting “no” and terminating a prolific relationship with MPIRG, show up to a meeting. Voice your concern about how time and energy are appropriated. Frustration and dissent have fueled grassroot campaigns for decades; if you are frustrated, use that frustration to create a change in the organization and the issues they address.

I believe that Carleton is a place where students do care about the creation of more spaces like the BWCA, the development of mixed-income housing, and government standards that hold companies responsible for toxic chemicals in consumer products. By voting “yes,” you allow students who are passionate about creating a change to represent campus concerns across the state. You reserve the right to spend your $7.50 on anything else. If past and present CSA senators would like to increase student voter turnout, they should do so through their own campaigning, not by trying to convince you that MPIRG funding is a scam.

-Patty Dana is a second-year student

Since elections are next week, I wanted to write to express my support for the continuance of MPIRG’s refusable /refundable fee. MPIRG is a unique part of Carleton, and if this referendum does not pass, the group will not be able to exist in the same way on our campus. Without the fee, MPIRG could not pay for the professional staff that their student board of directors hires. These staff members work for students’ interests and teach students important skills that help with lobbying and policymaking, so that students can become better activists. These resources make it much easier for students to work on environmental and social justice issues at a statewide level.

MPIRG is student directed, and students vote on the issues they work on each term. In the past, MPIRG helped to pass the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, making the BWCA the sole ‘paddle-only’ wilderness area in the nation and, additionally, MPIRG helped start green wars at Carleton which later expanded to become a nation-wide competition.

Each year that Carleton students vote on the referendum question, they have an important decision to make about the merits of the MPIRG fee system. For this reason, I want to make it clear that the fee is necessary for MPIRG to work. Voting against the fee would bring to a halt 38 years of accomplishments. Furthermore, if you can’t or don’t want to pay the fee, you can always refund it. Even if you do decide to refund your fee, voting yes allows other students to support an organization that works for environmental and social justice. Please vote yes on the MPIRG referendum.

-Myla Fay is a second-year student

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