Students will get their say on tax on tuition

Campus leaders gear up for today's council hearing

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Amanda King may skip three classes today to get an education in civics.

The Community College of Allegheny County student said last week that she'll be among the students packing Pittsburgh Council Chamber for a 10 a.m. hearing on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposed tuition tax.

"I'd like to get more involved with the local officials, and I think going to the hearing is a first step," said the Shaler resident, who plans to study broadcasting at Point Park University and rent a city apartment next year.

Ms. King voted in 2008 -- the first election for which she was old enough -- but skipped this year's municipal balloting. In that sense, she represents one of the big questions in politics: Why are young people who turn out for presidential contests chronically absent during other elections?

That question has a new, local variant: Will Mr. Ravenstahl's Nov. 9 proposal of a 1 percent levy on tuition prompt a short-term show of student furor, or a long-term increase in youth engagement in local politics?

"I think in a very backwards way, the mayor may have given us a little favor in pushing for this tax, because it's really gotten students engaged," wrote Aaron Gross, chair of the Undergraduate Student Senate at Carnegie Mellon University, in an e-mail response to questions. "My feeling is that students who have been through this issue will definitely come out and vote come next election because of it."

Political consultant Don Friedman isn't so sure.

"Every instinct I have says that nothing will come of it unless it passes and is approved in the courts, and someone organizes the students to protest -- and that will be an almost impossible task," he said. Given annual tuition hikes that dwarf the proposed levy, most students won't remember it when some council members come up for re-election in 2011, let alone in 2013, when the mayor faces voters.

The estimated 65,000 students who attend colleges and universities in the city have produced good yields for national candidates, but have been a fallow field for local politicians.

The voting districts in student-heavy central Oakland and North Oakland were busy in November 2008, logging participation rates of 48 percent to 70 percent. This year, though, with a mayor's race at the top of the ballot, one of those same districts saw just 2.3 percent of registered voters come to the polls, while others were in the teens.

Mr. Ravenstahl won 16 of Oakland's 19 voting districts, with Independent candidates Franco Dok Harris and Kevin Acklin taking two districts and one district, respectively.

Local politics wasn't affecting students then, said Daniel Jimenez, president of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. "We were kind of taking the city for granted."

That changed on Nov. 9, when Mr. Ravenstahl said the city needs a tuition tax to raise $16.2 million a year -- mostly for the city's fiscally flunking pension fund. The state-picked Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority forced him to remove the unproven tax from the 2010 budget, universities have said they'll challenge the levy in court and state Rep. Paul Costa plans to introduce legislation to outlaw it.

Mr. Ravenstahl has assembled a narrow council majority willing to pass it anyway.

Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at Pitt, required that his 125 students volunteer for a campaign this fall, and many chose Mr. Ravenstahl's team. Some felt that the post-election tuition tax announcement "was a slap in the face," he said. "They said, 'Why didn't he announce this before the election?' "

Actually, the tuition tax emerged as part of a menu of options shortly after the May primary. "Student head fees" were one of several possible revenue sources mentioned in a fiscal recovery plan council approved in June. And in October, Mr. Ravenstahl repeatedly mentioned the 1 percent tuition tax, along with a since-discarded 0.1 percent hospital bill tax, as possibilities.

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.

Also as of Wednesday, around 40 people had signed up to speak at today's hearing. Those who sign up in advance get three minutes at the microphone, while those who do not register are usually granted one minute.

Mr. Gross said that student leaders are considering parlaying campus anger into a voter registration drive.

"This is so big," said Mr. Jimenez, "it will definitely be remembered when Luke Ravenstahl comes up for re-election."

By the time Mr. Ravenstahl faces voters, though, most of today's freshmen will be graduating. Political consultant Matt Merriman-Preston said the tax will have faded as an issue, but could impact the race if it spurs the creation of lasting student groups dedicated to local politics.

"Student votes are ones that a candidate really has to work to get," he said. "Those are votes you can't count on," so some candidates don't try for them. If effective student networks emerge, candidates will be more likely to court campus voters, he said.

The 2011 primary for the District 3 City Council seat now held by Bruce Kraus may be a test of the tax plan's motivational power. Mr. Kraus has said he's skeptical of the tax, but won't make a decision until after today's hearing.

Mr. Ravenstahl could back a more pliable candidate in the 2011 race, said Mr. Merriman-Preston, who worked for Mr. Kraus' campaign in 2007.

Officials who support the tax "are in danger of having votes cast against them, assuming they have an opponent who says this wasn't a good thing, and suggests something else," said Mr. Friedman, who is paying his daughter's tuition at Pitt.

"But tuition is so high anyway," he said, and much of it is paid by parents, financial aid and loans. "If you did something like prohibiting students from drinking beer, that would get their attention."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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