VAMPIRES DEVOUR the blood of unsuspecting victims; MassPIRG is content to suck away their money. For both, the antidote is the same: plenty of sunshine and a stake through the heart.
MassPIRG, a left-wing lobby and pressure group, feeds off a little charade called a "negative checkoff," a scam that enables it to scarf down some $400,000 a year from students at 22 state-run colleges and universities in Massachusetts. Each semester, students are automatically charged a $5 or $6 "donation" to MassPIRG on their tuition bill. They can avoid the fee only by affirmatively refusing to pay. MassPIRG knows that in all the rush and tumult of a new semester most students (and parents) won't realize the fee isn't mandatory. Many, assuming that the only number that counts is the one on the bottom line, may never even notice it.
Other organizations have to put time, resources, and persuasion into raising money. MassPIRG relies instead on deception and confusion. Other organizations must absorb the costs of overhead and the hassle of collecting and handling funds. MassPIRG just sits back and lets the state do all its work.
PIRG, by the way, stands for Public Interest Research Group. Public interest, indeed. I wonder what Dracula stands for.
This farce should have ended in 1992, when the Legislature at long last banned the negative checkoff. But Attorney General Scott Harshbarger seized on a technical drafting error and refused to enforce the law. In 1993, the Legislature again outlawed PIRG's racket. In response, PIRG got the measure on the 1994 ballot as a referendum.
That was Question 3 -- the single most confusing ballot issue in living memory. To stop the negative checkoff required a yes vote; to perpetuate it required a no. The wording was so baffling that several newspapers, editorializing against PIRG's dishonest practice, inadvertently advised readers to vote no. The incomprehensibility of the referendum language was compounded by the failure to identify the ballot questions in many voting booths. Amid such fog and murk, MassPIRG was in its element. The negative checkoff squeaked by.
Now come two fresh attempts to halt PIRG's pickpocketing for good.
The Legislature is trying again. Pending before the Education Committee is H. 3321, a bill replacing the negative checkoff with a positive one -- i.e., requiring that students be charged for a donation only if they volunteer to make one. Such openness would be fatal to MassPIRG, which knows it can't survive without trickery and subterfuge. (That's why PIRG refuses to have chapters on campuses that bar negative checkoffs.)
The House defeated a no-negative-checkoff budget amendment Tuesday night, mostly because Speaker Charlie Flaherty took to the floor to mock the Republicans who offered it. But H. 3321, a stand-alone bill, has bipartisan support. The Legislature did the right thing in 1992 and 1993; it can do so again.
Meanwhile, a second front has opened up in the war against PIRG's lack of integrity.
At Bridgewater State College, MassPIRG has so antagonized student leaders that it is being forced to defend its very existence in a campus election. Affronted by the dishonesty of the negative checkoff -- and reminded that once PIRG collects its "donations" from Bridgewater students each semester, it vanishes -- the student government association chose to put the matter to a binding vote of the student body. Next week, the college's students will decide (a) whether the campus needs a MassPIRG chapter in the first place and (b) if it does, whether it should be funded through a positive or a negative checkoff.
Is PIRG thrilled at the prospect of an unfettered, democratic election -- at the chance to prove that its support on campus runs deep? Is it embracing this opportunity to appeal directly to the hearts and minds of Bridgewater students, instead of merely siphoning off money from their tuition bills? Oh, sure -- just like Dracula embraces garlic and crucifixes.
A paid MassPIRG functionary has been caught ripping down signs promoting a positive checkoff. The student who first raised the issue of PIRG's unfair funding scheme, sophomore Roger Limoges, has been libeled as a tool of corporate evildoers and a despoiler of the environment. (Sample PIRG poster: "Does Roger Limoges hate clean air?").
MassPIRG knows it is fighting for its life. If one campus prevents it from raising money deceptively, others will follow. More and more students will vote to stop being exploited by a special-interest group that sees them only as cash cows. PIRG's income stream will shrink to a trickle.
Ralph Nader, who founded PIRG, foresaw as much 24 years ago. A positive checkoff, he admitted, "is not a viable alternative for a PIRG. In essence, it is no different from a voluntary donation."
No other group demands the special treatment PIRG does. It is scandalous that this tuition bill fraud has lasted this long. State legislators can stomp it out once and for all by passing H. 3321. And Bridgewater State can fire a shot that will echo across the commonwealth by voting against MassPIRG, and against the negative checkoff.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)