Tuition tax debate gets personal

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Even as discussions between city of Pittsburgh officials and university presidents on a proposed 1 percent tuition tax become more decorous this week, procedural debates on city council have veered into the personal.

Yesterday council members strenuously debated whether to postpone their first vote on the tax for one week. In an unusual reversal of typical legislative tactics, the side with the votes to pass the tax argued for a postponement, while some of its opponents wanted to take a roll call vote.

Councilman Bruce Kraus, a tax foe who wanted a prompt vote, said that if Mayor Luke Ravenstahl wanted a one-week delay, he, or his staff members, should have called each council office.

"I understand that you felt disrespected by the mayor for not calling you personally," said Councilwoman Theresa Smith. "It's not about you, it's not about me, it's not about the mayor -- it's about the students."

Things got worse after Council President Doug Shields attacked representations made by Ms. Smith that her meeting last week with two university presidents was "productive."

"Not one of the conversations have been productive in any way, shape, or form," he said. He joined Mr. Kraus and Councilman William Peduto in pushing for an immediate vote on the tax.

That drew the ire of Councilman Patrick Dowd, a tuition tax foe who did not join the other three in pushing for a vote. Conceding that he was getting "personal," he said that Mr. Shields, as council's president, "is a person who is supposed to bring people together."

On this issue, he said, Mr. Shields was trying to force a divisive vote. He said that could lead to the international headline, "Pittsburgh Taxes Students," saying such publicity "undermines the future of this city."

Rancor aimed at the universities peaked last week, when Councilman Jim Motznik, in a televised council discussion that veered into complaints about annual tuition hikes, compared the academic establishment to the oldest profession. "These whores at the universities will end up taking more than 1 percent from the students," he said.

The comment spurred buzz beyond Pittsburgh. Lena G. Goldberg, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, in an e-mail to other academic officials, noted that Mr. Motznik has been elected to a district judge seat. "In my opinion, Mr. Motznik's statement is offensive, conclusory and false and demonstrates his complete lack of judicial temperament," she wrote.

On Friday, Mr. Motznik called University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg to apologize, and expressed his regret to Carlow University President Mary Hines and Point Park University President Paul Hennigan at a meeting. "I do think it was inappropriate," Mr. Motznik said in an interview.

Negative comments about the universities have abated since, as council members have largely split into two camps -- a minority that opposes the tax, and a slim majority that will vote for it if the universities don't make payments to the city.


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


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