Today’s blog post will be of interest mostly to US readers, since it concerns the US tax code. There has, of course, been a huge push recently for an overhaul of the tax system, with bills passing both the House and Senate. I am not, absolutely not, going to get into the details of either one – their wisdom, desirability, possible effects, etc. That’s not the blog I write. This bill is a massive collection of massive topics (fiscal, political, philosophical), and there are plenty of other places to argue them. Except there is one provision that is in the House bill (but not in the Senate version) that would have a big effect on the education of chemists (and scientists in general, and a lot of other people going to graduate school).
That’s the tuition waiver tax benefit. As it stands now, when a graduate student is given a tuition waiver (as is almost always the case in graduate science programs), this is not counted as taxable income for the student involved. The House bill would change this, which is something that would have an immediate impact throughout graduate education. We can argue about whether the current system produces too many graduate students and what kinds of students it produces, but I think that there is general agreement that any changes should not include first hitting the entire thing with a stun gun.
A number of people sounded the alarm about this after the House bill passed, but I’ve been taking a “wait and see” attitude about what would come out of the Senate. Now the bills will be reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee, unless the House just moves to adopt the Senate bill, which I think is less likely. That means now is the time to speak up and tell your members of Congress that you want the House bill’s provision on tuition tax waivers to go away in committee.
Here’s how to do that: first off, concentrate on your particular House district, since that’s where the tuition tax came from. Unfortunately, given the current environment, the first thing to ask is “Am I represented by a Republican or a Democrat?” If the latter, you should call your representative’s office anyway, but I would have to say that it’s less crucial, because the final bill will almost certainly be voted against by 100% of the Democratic members. So that’s pretty much fore-ordained. But if you’re in a Republican district, speak up immediately. Here’s how to find your representative, and how to contact them. But. . .
Do not bother contacting representatives if you don’t live in their district. That can actually be counterproductive, since (1) it ties up time that might be taken by their own constituents getting heard, and (2) a pile of out-of-district messages can be interpreted as some sort of outside targeted campaign, which gives the Representative (and their staff) a way to dismiss the whole position being argued. What gets a House member’s attention is an upswell of messages that are identifiably from their own voters, so you’ll want to give your name and where you live. It would help very much if you reference the fact that you are well aware that 2018 features midterm elections, and that you will be voting with the memory of this decision in mind. This is a minor enough section of the bill that it has a correspondingly greater chance of being altered by constituent pressure, and I don’t think that there will be many individuals calling in agitating for graduate students to be taxed.
As for the Senate, here’s how to contact them. The Republican/Democratic split applies here, too, since the Senate bill passed strictly on party lines. And remember, the Senate bill (which you may well have other strong feelings about) at least did not have the tuition tax idea in it, so the idea is for that part to stay as it was passed.
To the best of my knowledge, the members of the House-Senate conference committee have not been announced, but that would be a good thing to keep an eye on (today and tomorrow). If you are a voter for one of the people involved in the conference, so much the better – be sure to make your views heard to them. The Republicans in both the House and Senate are desperately trying to get this thing passed before the holiday break, so now’s the time.