Class Conflict | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Class Conflict

Technically, it's called the "Post-Secondary Education Privilege Tax": a 1 percent tax on higher-ed tuition that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl wants to levy against students. The mayor calls it the "Fair Share Tax." But you might just as easily call it the "Get the Hell Off My Lawn Tax." Because this is where Old Pittsburgh and New Pittsburgh collide. 

For starters, most of the proceeds from the tax will be earmarked to pay off pension debt. Many of the city's youngest residents, then, would be footing the bill for some of its oldest. Consider, too, the way Ravenstahl pitched the idea during his Nov. 9 budget presentation to city council.

Ravenstahl invited his audience to imagine the plight of a Lawrenceville cable installer. "When a Public Works crew has to clean up the mess left behind" by students, Ravenstahl asked, "who pays the bill? Larry from Lawrenceville."

That argument won't win many supporters on campus. To some, it will amount to saying, "Hey, students, you know all that pepper-spray we doused you with during the G-20? That stuff doesn't come cheap." But the organizations complaining the loudest -- the universities themselves -- have very little credibility when it comes to grousing about unjust fees. 

For example, Duquesne University President Charles J. Dougherty issued a statement calling it "extremely shortsighted to create a disincentive for students." But Duquesne itself charges a "University Fee" -- on top of a $24,000 undergraduate tuition -- that costs a full-time student more than $2,000. Dougherty is already charging students nine times as much as the tax he says will drive them away. And other schools do the same.

Students have another problem: Thousands of them are in the city, but not of it. A small number trash their sidewalks and burn couches. A much larger number never take to the streets at all. College students rarely vote in local elections, and turnout this November was especially poor. In Ward 4, District 8 -- an Oakland precinct that includes hundreds of Pitt dorm rooms -- turnout on Nov. 3 was 2.33 percent. 

Obviously, that explains a lot right there. Ravenstahl may be taxing the Peter's Pub crowd to pay Paul, but it won't cost many votes.

Or will it? Ravenstahl's tax increase doesn't just apply to the kids who come from beyond city limits to learn here. It would apply to residents training to be nurses and welders at CCAC ... or taking night classes at Pitt after a long day at the office. Many of these are residents already paying their "fair share."

Those folks have some consolation, at least: It's unclear that Ravenstahl's tax is even legal. A court battle seems almost inevitable. 

But give Ravenstahl credit. There is a fairness issue here. City officials have complained for years that "commuters don't pay their fair share." Maybe not, but at least commuters go home every night. Thousands of students live here 24/7 -- while paying taxes at their parents' address. And the real point of this bill is to find some way of getting big institutional nonprofits -- who contribute spottily to the city's general fund -- to help pay the bills. Taxing students is desperate, but it's not like their schools have left many other options.

The result is Old Pittsburgh versus New: a tax structure that hasn't caught up with its economic base.  Pittsburgh, we're constantly told, remade itself by casting off its industrial base and becoming all about "eds and meds." But somehow, we've managed to make the same mistakes we did the first time around.

Any time one or two industries dominate a community, they end up warping that community to suit their own ends. In its industrial heyday, Pittsburgh used to levy a "business privilege tax" that manufacturers were exempt from. Today, Pitt and Highmark guard their own tax-exempt status just as jealously, with an army of lobbyists and friends in Harrisburg.

Yes, yes -- nonprofits reinvest their profits in the enterprise, rather than paying out bonuses and dividends. But then, Andrew Carnegie did the same thing early on. And while we're going to hear a bunch in the days ahead about how much Pitt and CMU "do for us" in terms of attracting jobs and culture and people ... even the most heartless steel baron could say the same. 

Students are paying the price for their own schools' intransigence. Is that unfair? Sure. Welcome -- finally -- to the neighborhood. 

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