Toomey’s got mail: Grad students deliver letters


Thomas J. Yang

Caitlin Schroering spoke at the protest outside of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s Downtown office Wednesday afternoon. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer)

By Rachel Glasser | News Editor

The Grinch is best known for stealing Christmas, but he left Whoville and showed up on the doorstep of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s Downtown office Wednesday.

It was a blustery day, windy and in the low 40s, but Ph.D. epidemiology student Abby Cartus attributed the conditions to something other than the weather.

“It’s the chill of Pat Toomey and his horrible tax bill!” Cartus said into her megaphone.

Cartus, the Grinch — a United Steelworkers staff member clad in the full-body costume — and organizers from Pitt’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee delivered more than 1,000 letters expressing student and faculty concerns with the proposed Republican tax plan to Toomey’s office.

Jeff Cech, an organizer and staff member of the Academic Workers Association of the USW, estimated a crowd of about 45 gathered in front of the office at 310 Grant St. to chant and share personal testimony against the bill before a few attendees, including the Grinch, walked inside the building to deliver the letters.

“I think Toomey, he’s gonna be warmed by these letters,” Cech said. “Maybe his heart will grow five sizes.”

Attendees expressed concern over the GOP tax plan’s education-related policy changes — particularly a provision included in the House version of the bill that repeals Section 117(d)(5) Qualified Tuition Reduction Programs of the current tax code. A repeal of this section would reclassify deductible tuition waivers granted in exchange for employment as taxable income. Organizers also raised concerns about other provisions, including one that would eliminate student loan interest deductions.

While the Senate version of the tax plan — which supporters argue will spur economic growth — did not include these particular educational provisions, it’s uncertain whether the provisions will make it into the final version of the bill once the House and Senate reconcile their proposals.

Jordan Hayes, a Ph.D. student in the English department, said he wants to see graduate education made more accessible. But making higher education a tax burden, he said, would make it become an increasingly elite institution only wealthy individuals would be able to afford.

“To reclassify money that never — it never enters our bank accounts, never comes in our pockets — to reclassify that as income is not only sort of logically imprecise, but it’s an attack on people who are trying to participate in endeavors that will give back to the community and the world, in time,” Hayes said.

Some graduate students, such as Hayes, teach undergraduates, while others engage in research. Aaron Anthony, a Ph.D. student in Pitt’s School of Education and a candidate running for the U.S. Congress to represent the 12th District, said the graduate students’ impact is significant.

“Graduate student researchers — we fuel the innovation and the discovery and the research that benefits everybody collectively,” Anthony said.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher highlighted the impacts the tax bill would have on research and higher education in an email he sent Nov. 17 in opposition to the plan. In the email, he said he has decided to join with other leaders from the higher education community to collectively express concerns.

“I am deeply concerned by these proposed changes, which would be detrimental to the entire Pitt community,” Gallagher said.

Hayes said, as a fourth-year student, he’s committed to finishing his program whether the tax bill passes or not, unlike other students who said they might have to leave. But he hasn’t had to take out additional student loans in a while — something he might be forced to do if he has to pay taxes on his tuition.

“This provision will increase my tax burden. Right away,” Hayes said. “You just do the math and it’s pretty ugly.”

But it’s not just the tax provisions within the tax plan — which students said could increase their taxes by 250 to 400 percent — that students expressed worry about. The 500-page bundle contains a repeal of former President Obama’s health care law nestled within its pages.

This addition is personal for Caitlin Schroering, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in sociology and stage IIIC colorectal cancer survivor. She was diagnosed at age 27, and although she’s been healthy for three years, she will require expensive scans to maintain her health for the rest of her life — making health insurance a top priority for her on top of her graduate education.

“The current Senate tax bill is also a health care bill. And it will seriously impact the 100 million Americans who rely on the federal government for health insurance,” Schroering said. “This isn’t about politics. This is about people’s lives.”

After a few speakers shared their perspectives on the tax bill, about five organizers entered the building to deliver the letters. Beth Shaaban, a Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology and one of the organizers who went inside, said they were not allowed to go up to Toomey’s office. After GSOC organizers insisted that a staff member from Toomey’s office travel downstairs to retrieve the letters, one came down and picked up the letters — at that point loose-leaf, rather than in boxes.

“We took all of the letters out of the two boxes so he could physically see 1,000-plus letters from constituents,” Shaaban said.

Shaaban and other organizers also dropped off a meeting request form for next Monday or Tuesday with Toomey, which they left with the security guard. Shaaban said she hoped GSOC representatives would have the opportunity to sit down with Toomey and discuss their concerns face-to-face.

“We need to hold them accountable for this request,” Shaaban said. “We will follow up with them.”

Pat Toomey’s office did not respond to an email or a phone call on Wednesday about whether he received the letters and about his stance on the education tax bill provisions.

Anthony said if higher education unravels, it won’t just be graduate students who are affected — the tax plan’s implications will be widespread, reaching University employees and beyond.

“This is not just about graduate students,” Anthony said. “This is not just about graduate students because we’re all connected.”

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