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Pittsburgh College Students Protest Tuition Tax Proposal

December 2, 2009

by Agnes Jasinski

Pittsburgh city officials have received some criticism over the last few days on their latest plan to cover local budget deficits and shortfalls: a tax on college students.

The 1 percent tuition tax, described as the "Post Secondary Education Privilege Tax" or Fair Share Tax," would target local college students and, officials say, raise $16 million for the city to cover things like city employees' pension funds and costs associated with the public library system until the city is able to get a handle on its budget problems. Pittsburgh has 85,000 students in 10 colleges and universities that would be affected by the tax, attending schools like the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, and La Roche College.

City officials justify the measure with the argument that college students should be paying for the services they use as already residents do. According to a Wall Street Journal article on the issue this week, the tax would range from $27 for students attending the Community College of Allegheny County, to as much as $409 for students at Carnegie Mellon University.

The students don't seem to be taking the news lightly. On Monday night, about 100 students came to a Pittsburgh City Council meeting to protest the measure, calling the idea "Taxation Without Representation" and a "double tax" on those who already pay other taxes, such as property taxes, sales taxes, and fees associated with water use and tickets to sporting events. Critics also argue this is a terrible time to be imposing more fees on students, as post-secondary tuitions continue to rise, student loan debts continue to increase, and the job market only becomes more competitive for recent graduates.

As a response to the students' concerns, the state legislature is already looking for alternatives to the tuition tax through a proposal called the Non-Profit Essential Services Fee Bill. The bill would place a mandatory fee on nonprofit institutions' real estate profits. Many nonprofits already contribute to municipalities voluntary, so lawmakers hope this plan would be less controversial. The nonprofits would have to choose where to cover those costs of the additional fees if they do not already contribute voluntary, however, and if that nonprofit is a university, students could still be expected to cover that services fee bill.

Discussions now will explore whether such a tax is even legal, as tax attorneys disagree about whether a city may tax a population just for being in those city limits, usually temporarily. Also, is it fair to tax one student more than another, just because they attend a school with a higher tuition? If the tuition tax was approved, it could go into effect next year.


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