Graduate students protest proposed tax bill

London Gibson

When the tower chimed at noon today, graduate student workers across campus dropped their grading pens and gathered on the South Mall, where they protested a proposed bill that would tax graduate student’s tuition waivers as income.

A few hundred students left their duties Wednesday to gather in the cold rain and stand against the bill. Some graduate student workers have tuition waived as a benefit for working in research or as teaching assistants, and many say taxing the waivers would make it even more difficult to survive in Austin under small University wages.

Anna Lyon, American studies graduate student and co-organizer of the event, said the tax bill would be particularly devastating to graduate student workers who already come from a marginalized community, such as students of color, first-generation students and students from working class backgrounds.

“It’s particularly important that we do not let those students receive the brunt of this burden,” Lyon said. “They’re such a vital part of our community that we really need to send through the fact that those are the first people who will be affected by this.”

Baseline compensation for graduate workers in the College of Liberal Arts is $15,074 per school year without tax, according to a press statement from the walkout organizers. Broken down, this becomes $1,256 per month. The average rent in Austin for a one-bedroom apartment is over $1,000 per month.

Co-organizer of the walkout Robert Oxford said graduate student workers are already scraping to get by and many take second and third jobs to make ends meet.

“The University knows from internal reviews and external reviews that its funding packages for graduate students don’t keep pace with the standard of living in Austin,” said Oxford, an American studies student. “As Austin becomes increasingly more expensive to live in, there’s been little effort from the University to address the graduate student standard of living.”

Art history graduate student Elizabeth Welch said she makes between $12 and $15 per hour, which is not a living wage in Austin. In the wake of this tax bill, she hopes the University will find a way to pay student workers more so they can make tax payments on tuition waivers, something she called an “imaginary income.”

“If they count our tuition remission as income, then we’ll be making less money because we have to pay taxes on that fictional income that we never see,” Welch said. “That (tuition waiver) goes straight from the tower to the tower. It goes from one UT bank account to another UT bank account, it never touches us.”

University spokesman J.B. Bird said in an email the University is aware of the graduate student complaints, and has plans to collaborate with lawmakers to discuss the tax bill’s impact.

“We are closely monitoring progress on the Senate tax bill and have reached out to various members of Congress to discuss potential impacts on university students,” Bird said. “We plan to continue to work with our lawmakers so that tax-relief does not increase college costs and student debt or impact the quality and accessibility of education.”

U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, who represents Texas’ 25th district, offered an amendment that would maintain the tax exemption for tuition waivers, and has said he stands with graduate students on this issue.

“As a Longhorn myself and the husband of a Longhorn with two UT graduate degrees, I also recognize the vital role that you play at our University,” Doggett said in a statement to graduate students. “I strongly oppose increasing your taxes in order to provide more tax breaks to multinational corporations. This struggle is not over.”

The walkout was initiated by a small number of students in the American studies program. The Graduate Student Assembly supported it and recruited other interested parties to make it a larger event.

The bill would tax students for money they don’t get, said Kareem Mostafa, assembly president and civil engineering graduate student. He said financial struggles facing graduate students are not the University’s fault, but the continuation of a pattern of declining state funding for education in Texas and in the nation.

“This hurts, the whole situation of going after graduate education,” Mostafa said. “The fight is not students versus the tower, because the tower already knows it and the tower already does what it can to mitigate the issue. The fight is students versus legislators.”

Chase Karacostas, city and state senior reporter, contributed to this article.