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Monday, November 30, 2009

Tuition tax pre-test

Posted By on Mon, Nov 30, 2009 at 9:53 AM

A little later today, we'll be posting news of City Council's public hearing on the tuition tax, which is underway even as I type this. Students are slated to speak, and student leaders from Pitt and CMU have issued a statement pledging to release a petition with "thousands of signatures ... in opposition of the proposed tuition tax."

I hope so for their sake, because when I saw Rich Lord's preview in the Post-Gazette this morning, I was distinctly underwhelmed. 

The operative passage:

After the mayor's 2010 budget address featured the tax, student government leaders from nearly all of the city's schools gathered at Pitt. CMU's student government put up a Web site, www.stoptuitiontax.org. As of Wednesday, 2,543 different computer users had visited the site, 108 of those wrote e-mails to City Council, and 29 used it to report that they had called a council member

Only 108 students wrote e-mails? Seriously? To put that number in perspective, that's half the number of people who showed up for a rally to save UPMC Braddock. And that rally was taking place outside in mid-November, in a steady rain. Here you've got students doing on-line activism from the comfort of a bedroom or computer lab, and still they can barely make a showing. 

That's not to say there aren't committed student activists. In the P-G's print edition, Lord's story quotes a student leader, Daniel Jimenez, who appears elsewhere on the same page -- in a Pitt-sponsored ad objecting to the tax.

Jimenez, a grad student who worked on the petition-gathering effort, is quoted in the ad noting that pays parking, sales and amusement taxes like many other folks. He also owns a home and pays taxes on the property, and wage tax on the money he earns working. 

"I'm rehabbing my City house to improve it and my neighborhood," the ad says. "But the City says I don't contribute."

Pitt has been running these quarter-page ads for the past few days. At the same time, the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education -- which represents 10 non-profit institutions of higher learning --  has been running its own companion campaign in the P-G.

The council's quarter-page ads insist that "Students Already Pay Their Fair Share." 

"Students who live in campus residence halls do enjoy a measure of protection from local property taxes," the ads concede. "However, less than one-quarter of our students live in university-owned housing. The other three quarters do pay property taxes, either directly on the homes that they own or indirectly through the rental payments that they make." 

The ad frets that students "actually could pay more for city services than well-paid professionals who work in the city year-round."

That is, I guess, a reference to the fact that commuters pay only a $52-a-year levy. Which might sound outrageous -- especially if you think, as I do, that commuters can and should pay more. But on the other hand, as I pointed out before, you could argue that students probably USE city services more than well-paid professionals, who by definition go home at the end of the day. (And let's face it: You'll find a much smaller number of well-paid professionals putting a burden on city services by partying at Semplefest.) 

Of course, well-paid professionals are better able to pay than students are -- no matter how little the professionals may use the services. But do city colleges really want us to decide these issues on the basis of who can best afford to pay? If so, it's natural to wonder how much all these ads cost ... and whether that money shouldn't have been directed to city coffers instead. Won't the cost of those ads be taken from students' tuition as well?

All this gets to the heart of the dilemma here. As everyone knows, students are easy to tax in part because, up until now, they just don't vote or get involved in city politics much. Meanwhile, the colleges themselves have money and resources to fight this battle ... but they're exactly the kind of big institutions city officials really want to tax. Students are caught between grasping public officials and grasping universities, who are used to having prior claim on their wallets. 

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