Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Student Tax: Rope-A-Dope Coming? [**]

I think I may know what's going on here.

It's a pretty cynical explanation, even for me -- and if I'm wrong it will soon be obvious, but here goes:

Confronted with a $15 million budget hole, the Mayor proposed a 1% tax on tuition, quickly gathered five Council members literally to stand behind him, and together they marched forward and far out on a limb in a public relations battle against universities. "This is happening," was the message, "unless you pony up and contribute some other way."

However, the ICA rejected a city budget which included the tuition tax -- not exactly forbidding us to attempt it, but demanding that we find another way to fill the budget gap. The ICA later endorsed a number of technocratic proposals (forwarded largely by Controller Michael Lamb and Councilman Bill Peduto) to fill that gap on at least a short-term basis. Meanwhile, someone at the state level was roused to preempt our ability to enact the tax -- as opposition to it became organized on a near-national level.

The universities, though still concerned, seemed to have little cause to quake in their boots.

On Wednesday, proponents of the tax on Council delayed voting on it for one more week -- to have "conversations" with the universities. Yesterday, a day on which the Post-Gazette ran an editorial emphasizing the need for Council to come up with "another feasible plan to raise those dollars" before it "tosses the tuition tax aside", Mayor Ravenstahl appeared personally before Council to advertise his affable willingness to consider all other alternatives -- but to repeatedly term what was now happening a "Band-Aid approach" and warn of likely cuts in 2011. Finally, four and a half Council members held a secret, productive meeting with the universities, and spoke secretively about its productivity.

It is December 5. Monday will be December 7. In about three weeks -- bearing in mind the Christmas holiday -- two Council proponents of the tax will be replaced by two near college-aged members who do not have particularly strong ties to the Mayor. It is likely then that any further delay would effectively kill the tax.

Why not rush it through? Is it possible some present Council members are getting cold feet? Would Tonya Payne wish, as her grand finale on Council, to be seen leading the charge in levying a controversial tax on young people, on educational attainment -- just prior to a likely run against State Rep. Jake Wheatley? Does Ricky Burgess, a professor at CCAC, really have an appetite for taxing students and displeasing academia -- at least part of his natural constituency -- if said legislation is destined to be preempted or legally overturned?

Yet they can't surrender -- neither the Mayor nor the Councillors --because they've all marched so far from home. So instead they embark on these "productive" discussions, wherein the productivity is classified but oh-so real!

And here's the beauty part: these talks can be made to sound more and more promising for at least a couple weeks, so long as the secrecy is maintained. Then the new Council members take over, and in short order one or both of them will say something frank about their posture toward the non-profiteers and the need to compel them (not their students) somehow contribute their fair share. So the "talks" collapse, and then:

"We were so close! The Mayor's classic Council, the collaborative, politically adult Council, everything was going so well, if only we had more time! But then these new brats came along, with their combative personalities and their Bill Peduto and their denim jackets, and they ruined the whole cooperative spirit! Now it's because of them we don't have a tuition tax and we don't have an agreement with the universities, and we only have a ratty Band-Aid and there will be horrendous cuts in 2011! Oh, if only the voters were smarter, and had sent us Council members more willing to cooperate with the Mayor and his allies!"

Now I don't know what will actually happen in 2011. I suspect we will find yet another Peter to rob in order to pay Paul. And I'm not sure when the Peters' bill will come due, and when those debts will be turned over to leg-breakers. Perhaps we will find a way to skin those non-profit cats before Service Cut Armageddon, or perhaps not.

Whatever it is though, in the increasingly uncertain meanwhile, the political shift which began in 2007 and gained serious momentum in 2009 -- away from the old guard and towards self-styled reformers -- will come in for serious scapegoating. That is instead of that old guard which actually gave rise to the entirety of our sticky financial situation.

*-UPDATE: Jon Delano calls the tuition tax "stupid". (PBT, Jon Delano; portions appear to be $$)

**-UPDATE 2: Jeez, it's like he's not even reading this. THE JIG IS UP, MAN! (P-G, Rich Lord)


  1. It seems that, as the Ravenstahl administration continues its ineptitude on every important issue (budget, pension, tuition tax,) power in city hall is shifting to council and the controller.

  2. I considered on my blog, probably a month ago, that Ravenstahl knew the Tuition Tax would never pass all along, and wanted to use the attempt to deflect criticism for an increase in property taxes or whatever other solution he came up with. So yeah, I'm inclined to buy this analysis. I don't think it's too cynical.

  3. If the above scenario is a glimmer of accuracy then why bring in a high end philly attorney to litigate any opposition to the tax? Is that just for show also? If it is, that is one expensive show.

  4. I will concede the point if a dollar of Ravenstahl's own money goes toward that lawyer's salary.

  5. Anon 3:00 - I'm not at all sure the tuition tax was always an empty gesture -- but I guess I'm saying it seems to me that's all that's left of it. We'll see how much more that attorney gets called into action.

  6. Perception is the only thing that ever really shifts in City Hall.

    Someday, I trust, everyone (or at least more of us) will understand why...


  8. Finally, four and a half Council members held a secret, productive meeting with the universities, and spoke secretively about its productivity.

    That 1/2 council member was a representative from Burgess office. The poorest council district the least represented. But Burgess plans to vote for the titution tax. Way to go Burgess, what else to we have to look forward to you agreeing with that don't benefit us?

    Q. Burgess rep at meeting - did you enjoy pretending to be council rep if even for a meeting?


  9. Mr. Reichbaum, there's a Mr. Occam on line 1, something about razors...

    In all seriousness, this seems a bit half-baked. Far more reasonable to assume that Ravenstahl, who had floated the student tax before the election, simply underestimated the outcry and failed to have his ducks in a row. Given that, pushing it now would entail substantial risk when he's already weakened by scandal, so he'd rather let it die on the operating table.

  10. To be an enemy of the Tuition Tax Five; answer yes to at least one of the following questions:

    1. Are you a college student that would have to pay this tuition tax?

    2. As a student or parent do you sign for student loans for self or child that would have to pay back the money borrowed to pay the tuition tax?

    3. Are you a parent of a college student who may consider leaving Pittsburgh for school to avoid the tuition tax?

    4. As a voting citizen do you think it is just plan wrong to institute a tuition tax?

    5. Are you mad that the Tuition Tax Five made the choice to support this tax?

    Again if you answered yes to just one question then you are an enemy of the Tuition Tax Five council members. Two of them are leaving in a few days and the other three will at some point beg for your vote to re-elect them.

    So what are you going to do: 1) Stay mad forever and not vote for them again or 2) Stay mad for a while and forget about it come election time or 3) Do nothing and reelect them back to office.

    Time will tell the answer and oh council member what do you think the odds are that this won't bite you?

  11. Anon 10:26 - Ah yes, I recall Mr. Occam - I believe we had a brief chat about a week ago.

    To repeat myself: I do think the tuition tax was proposed in seriousness -- but I don't think its viability lasted long for many reasons already much-discussed (as well as some others -- that "first in the nation" tag repeatedly cements it as too heavy a lift) and I don't take these meetings seriously except as a gambit to set up the progressives to take the fall for the action's failure to produce results and for the forecasted budget hole in general.

    While writing this post I was weighing whether or not to declare the tax "dead", but determined that would be a bit presumptive. Then I got a good look at the treatment it was given by the P-G on Sunday. I still can't credibly declare it dead, but I sure as heck wouldn't sell it life insurance.

  12. Love how the Hoagie took on Motznik today!! That guy is a creep!