By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
DILLON - The Board of Regents decided Friday that the University of Montana will no longer collect fees for any student organization.
Critics quickly condemned the decision as an attempt to silence the Montana Public Interest Research Group, a liberal organization often demonized by conservatives.
''This was a concerted strategy by some very ideological people ... who oppose the issues we work on,'' said Matthew Singer, MontPIRG treasurer. ''It's an attempt to silence us. What they're going to find is that we're not easily silenced.''
The university for years has collected a student fee that went to MontPIRG. Students were free not to pay the fee if they didn't wish to.
Opponents have argued the policy is not fair to other student organizations, and have urged the regents to scrap the practice. They said all student organizations who want financial support should compete equally for student government funding.
The regents, after about two hours of public comment and board debate Friday, voted 6-1 to allow the university to collect fees for all student-run organizations at UM and no longer just MontPIRG.
Moments later, however, the board repealed 5-2 the very policy it had just adopted - which means the university will not collect funds for any student group.
Lynn Hamilton of Havre, one of two regents voting against scrapping the new policy, called the move a ''political power play.''
''I believe the governor made legislative political appointments (to the board) to advance a conservative political agenda and what happened today is a perfect example of that,'' she said.
However, Chairman John Mercer of Polson rejected the assertion. ''I don't think it has anything to do with the politics of it.''
He and other regents who supported both revising the policy and then throwing it out said their votes reflected desire for a policy that would not cater to just one student organization, as well as their philosophical opposition to having UM administration collecting student membership fees.
The dispute over collection of the voluntary fee at UM has been around for years, but arose most recently at the regents' November meeting, when opponents urged the regents to scrap that practice. MontPIRG countered with a proposal to extend its fee-collection privilege to all student groups.
The regents delayed action, telling the students to try for a compromise.
MontPIRG, which bills itself as a ''voice for the public interest in support of a clean and healthful environment, a fair marketplace for consumers, and an open and responsive government,'' returned with much the same plan Friday. The same arguments heard in November were repeated.
The regents adopted the revised policy, with only Richard Roehm of Bozeman dissenting. He said the some of the wording was too vague.
Then he asked the board to repeal the new policy. Among those who had supported the change, only Hamilton and Mark Semmens of Great Falls opposed that move.
Later, Hamilton said the actions demonstrated the power of the voting bloc created by Republican Gov. Judy Martz's four appointments to the board: Mercer, Lila Taylor of Busby, Mike Foster of Billings and Christian Hur of Missoula.
Hur said his votes represented the wishes of student leaders, while Foster and Mercer said they were concerned that dozens of student groups would ask UM administration to begin collecting membership fees for them. Taylor did not make herself available for comment.
Singer said MontPIRG was targeted by political foes, unhappy with its support for environmental protection issues and its backing of ballot measures banning corporate spending on initiative campaigns and allowing state ownership to Montana dams.
But, he added, the loss of its fee-collection process won't kill the organization, which gets only about a sixth of its $60,000-$80,000 annual budget from that source.