By Jane Hagen with additional reporting by Yanit Mehta
UCI participated in a nationwide graduate student walkout on Wednesday to protest the GOP tax reform, just days before Senate passed its version of the tax reform bill early Saturday morning in a 51-49 vote.
The tax reform, although unreconciled between the two versions in the House and the Senate, has several provisions that graduate students and Democratic representatives believe would be detrimental to higher education.
If the bill were to pass into law, graduate students who receive tuition waivers because they teach or do research would now have to pay income tax on the waived amount, increasing the cost of their higher education by thousands of dollars on average. In addition, low and middle income Americans would no longer be able to deduct up to $2,500 a year in student loan interest.
The UCI administration is also against the passage of this tax reform bill; a letter written by the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Enrique Lavernia states, “the University of California has joined other colleges and universities nationwide in voicing opposition to H.R. 1 as, in its current form, it would impede our educational mission.”
However, according to one student who declined to give his name, UCI administration hindered the protest by discouraging graduate students from gathering near the flagpoles.
“I want administration to stop harassing us for issues like this, as they know that public speaking should be allowed in this space,” he said. “Especially if they are really in alignment with us they should reserve this place for us to do it.”
The bill was unread by most, if not all, Senators when it was passed. 479 new pages were handed to the Democratic Senators the night before the vote on the bill, with certain sections written in cursive in the margins. The Senate was able to pass their version of the tax reform after majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that they had secured enough swing votes to pass. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee was the only Republican to vote against the bill. Conference committee negotiation meetings started on Monday for the House and Senate to agree on a single piece of legislation to pass.
Working together, the UC Student-Workers Union (UWA 2865) organized the Grad Tax Walkout at 10 a.m., and the UCI AGS Office of the VP of External Affairs helped students call their representatives at 9 a.m.
Rebecca Grady, the UCI AGS vice president of external affairs and a graduate student currently working toward a Ph.D. in psychology and social behavior, believes that the proposed changes in the House tax reform bill would be devastating to graduate students and higher education as a whole. She urges lawmakers to remove these provisions from the bill, and to oppose it if these provisions remain. She and graduate students across the country are especially concerned about the impacts of repealing section 117(d), which would allow the taxation of tuition waivers as income.
“I think the bill has a number of really harmful provisions, that will really devastate higher education,” said Grady. “The already low stipend that graduate students receive would now be cut by thousands of dollars. Many students are already struggling, and we are constantly fighting for basic needs like food and housing. With this amount of increase in tax burden, many people would have to drop out of the program, and it would be very hard for graduate education to continue.”
“I hope the walkout will really get people motivated to continue action on this front,” Grady continued. “We really need to make people across the country aware of what’s going on because our representatives and our senators need to know how damaging this proposal is. This is something where we need people to write op-eds, we need people to talk to reporters, we need people to do research, we need people who call their representatives, we need to do everything so that people are aware of what’s at stake and how devastating this would be for all of our graduate students.”
Dave Min, a UCI law professor and congressional candidate hoping to replace Mimi Walters in the 45th district, came to speak at the Grad Walkout.
“You are our future educators, scientists, engineers. You’re also the teachers that teach our students, we all know that. You’re balancing workloads, you’re balancing research, you’re balancing teaching requirements, and many of you are doing this with family obligations. You’re doing this while you are severely underpaid,” Min said. “But let’s be honest, what we’re talking about to today is not about expanding your salaries… What we’re talking about today is your very existence. The Republican tax plan will tax you out of existence. Only the independently wealthy will be able to afford graduate education going forward. This will be the privilege of the independently wealthy. It is an attack on graduate education. But I also want to make a larger point. This is not just an attack on you all, it a a broader attack on American opportunity, on their American dream, on education, which is at the heart of opportunity and social mobility in this country.”
Kevin Kadowaki, a logic & philosophy of science graduate student at UCI and Head Steward of the UAW 2865 Irvine unit is also primarily concerned about making graduate tuition waivers taxable income. This would increase the amount that most domestic student would have to pay considerably and would be even worse for international and non-resident students.
“I know many people that live paycheck to paycheck, and a thousand dollar cut to their income is just not feasible for many people. What this bill would do, is effectively, if nothing is done, and students are taxed an additional $1000 a year, would make being a grad student pretty much unfeasible except for the independently wealthy,” said Kadowaki.
Gwendolen Pare, an international graduate from the UK student studying Spanish and Latin American literature, would be more harshly impacted by the tax reform.
“As an international student, I think I would be paying three or four times more [taxes]. That would basically tip the balance of whether I can live here, and I may have to consider leaving. I hope that lots and lots more people turn up to this walkout, because this obviously isn’t just about international students,” she said. “Grad studies still needs to get people regardless of whether their families can support them or not. This is important for excellence in research, this is important for democracy in education, and for social justice in society as a whole.”
If signed into law, the new tax reform bill will go into effect on January 1, 2018.