Emory community advocates for changes in proposed tax legislation

By Melissa Gilstrap | Emory Report | Nov. 16, 2017

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Tax reform legislation is moving rapidly through Congress, with the U.S. House of Representatives passing its version this afternoon. The House legislation includes provisions that would negatively impact higher education, particularly in the areas of courtesy scholarships for employees, tuition waivers for graduate students, endowments and charitable contributions. The current Senate version does not include identical provisions from the House bill, but nonetheless remains problematic.  

The Senate is expected to vote on its legislation the week after Thanksgiving. The next step is to reconcile the two legislative versions before final vote and passage, anticipated by early December. For the past two weeks, Emory community members, including President Claire E. Sterk, Laney Graduate School students and representatives from Emory’s Office of Government and Community Affairs, have engaged with lawmakers to voice concerns regarding the proposed legislation. 

In response to inquiries on how to share concerns with members of Congress, the OGCA team offers a letter template for adaptation. To determine your representative, enter your zip code here. The OGCA team encourages community members to use the language provided in the template in order to convey a clear, consistent message regarding issues of concern to higher education.  

Emory Report will continue to post updates on advocacy efforts as the proposed tax reform legislation takes shape. 

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Laney Graduate School students, leadership speak out on tax bills

Since House Republicans unveiled the proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on Nov. 2 — legislation that would rewrite the tax code for the first time in more than three decades — the Emory community has mobilized to advocate against provisions that would unduly impact Emory students, employees and patients. 

“The proposed tax bills in both the House and the Senate would have a detrimental impact on our university, on higher education and certainly on graduate students,” says Laney Graduate School Dean Lisa Tedesco.

Currently, the U.S. tax code exempts qualified tuition reduction and tuition waivers and scholarships from being counted toward calculations of gross income for the purpose of taxation. While Laney doctoral students pay taxes on their stipends, which range from $24,000 to $30,000, they are not required to also pay taxes on their tuition scholarships — money that students never actually see.

“The mission of the Laney Graduate School and other institutions of higher education is to train the next generation of researchers, scholars and leaders,” says Tedesco. “What these proposed bills do is significantly increase the tax burden placed on our students, making financial hardship much more likely and certainly discouraging some students that would otherwise consider pursing a graduate degree from actually doing so.”

Tedesco reached out the Laney community in early November, and since that time, Tedesco and others in the Laney Graduate School have been in constant contact with graduate students and university leaders to coordinate advocacy efforts that push back against the proposed revisions.

“We are working to connect our students to Emory’s Office of Government and Community Affairs, while also coordinating with senior Emory leadership to make sure that graduate student voices and concerns reach the ears of our congressional representatives,” says Mary Horton, assistant dean for student affairs at Laney.

Indeed, graduate students have organized to make calls and write letters to their representatives and have also been featured in the national press about the potential effects of the proposed revisions on their educations and their lives.

“So many of us are already discouraged by a cut-throat grant funding climate … to add the burden of an astronomical tax rate could lead thousands of would-be young American scientists to look for training opportunities overseas, or worse, to decide against a career in science all together,” says Crystal Grant, a doctoral student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology Program.

Elizabeth Minton, president of the Laney Graduate School Graduate Student Council and a doctoral student in the Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology Program, also worries about the ability of current students to continue in their programs should the proposed revisions become law.

These changes, she says, might “make it impossible to continue unless we take on student loans or have independent means of support, creating a barrier for those of lower socioeconomic status to obtain a higher education. A lot of graduate students, including myself, are frightened by this possibility, as we would not be able to afford to continue graduate school.”

Student voices are reaching sympathetic ears in Congress. On Nov. 16, referencing the calls he is receiving in his office, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) took to the House floor to urge his colleagues to vote “no” on the proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Speaking from the floor, Lewis said, “You cannot hide the truth from teachers who try to lend a helping hand and students who struggle to get an education.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Tedesco. "Some of our best students, many of whom are first generation students or come from working and middle class backgrounds, would not be here if current exemptions were not in place to offset the cost of pursuing a graduate degree," she says. "Graduate education advances the public good, and what these proposed tax reforms do is compromise the innovations and very real benefits that emerge from the research university and the work of these graduate students."

Continued outreach

Advocacy efforts continue at all levels of the university. Sterk and the Office of Government and Community Affairs continue to be in contact with congressional representatives. Students, faculty and staff are also encouraged to speak out against these proposed revisions.

“This is just the beginning and we want to urge all members of the Emory community to strongly advocate for higher education and research," says graduate student Vineet Tiruvadi, vice president of Emory’s Graduate Student Government Association and an MD/PhD student. "Engage however you can, through calls to Congress, letters to DC, organizing your fellow students to send a unified voice.”