Some of the more confusing lobbying groups in Washington and several state capitals are public interest research groups whose gravy train of government-blessed funding is facing a well-deserved challenge in legislatures nationwide. PIRGs lean to the left, but that's the least of their problems. Often stridently critical of plastics in packaging and in the environment, they collect funds from young people through a system so deceptive it makes the doublespeak in Orwell's 1984 seem tame.
Up to now, the PIRG system has garnered favor in the courts as an alleged exercise of free expression: Students must have a forum in which to express themselves in the community. But is it free expression, or a free ride, that PIRGs are after? PIRGs exist for the media they generate on behalf of specific causes, funded through contributions they demand from universities.
The PIRGs' major weapon is the negative checkoff. A student has to make a conscious decision not to allow his or her university to deduct an amount from the student's tuition bill to fund the PIRG. Through this method, PIRGs raised nearly $2 million last year in just five of the 20 states in which they have offices.
PIRGs are not formally part of any university's activities. A federal appeals court in 1985 defined the educational benefits of PIRGs to be ``incidental'' to the primary purpose of these organizations. Yet they continue with the monikerof ``public interest'' because so far, their presence has been an issue only among college-town audiences, not the electorate at large.
But the ability to collect funds through the vehicle of a state-chartered university's tuition affects all taxpayers. As for plastics, this system of back-door fund raising provides money for only one voice in a debate that has many sides.
Both state and federal legislators are fighting back. New Jersey's Gov. Christine Whitman signed a bill in late March that prohibits mandatory and waivable fees on college tuition bills. Massachusetts' legislators have a bill that replaces any negative checkoff system with a positive checkoff system.
At the federal level, Reps. Ernest Jim Istook, R-Okla., and Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., brought an amendment to the Education Department's appropriations bill that would have banned federal funding to universities subsidizing political organizations through a mandatory checkoff.
The amendment failed, in large part because Congress would rather have a more emotionally charged reason to deny federal funding to colleges than an objection to a minor fee most students won't notice. But Craig Rucker, executive director of the Washington-based Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow says the amendment will be reintroduced in the House and it has Senate support.
PIRGs are neither public, nor of interest outside a narrow agenda, nor research-oriented, nor a group whose membership extends beyond a handful of people.
If you're enrolled at a university, don't hope to be part of a PIRG unless you favor a severe limit on plastic packaging, a nuclear weapons freeze or the Equal Rights Amendment. ``Student '' is a relative title in the PIRG vernacular, but a mantle easily assumed when the speaker stands before a television news camera.
King is Plastics News' Washington-based staff reporter.