University of Pittsburgh Wages Campaign Against Unfair-Share Tax Proposal

Issue Date: 
December 7, 2009

The University of Pittsburgh has been actively campaigning against City of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s proposal to impose a 1 percent tuition tax on all students attending institutions of higher learning in the city. Pitt is running advertisements in local newspapers in opposition to the proposal, including ads with personal stories from Pitt students [see below].

The University also has been participating in efforts by the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education (PCHE), an organization comprising the area’s 10 colleges and universities; PCHE’s leadership has been discussing the tax with the mayor and members of the Pittsburgh City Council. In addition, Pitt’s Office of Governmental Relations has been meeting with city officials to work through the issue.

On Dec. 2, City Council voted 7-2 to postpone until Dec. 9 the first of two votes required to enact the proposed tax. This action followed Ravenstahl’s receipt of a letter from Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, who asked the mayor to take the tax proposal off the table so that other revenue-raising options may be discussed. The full text of the chancellor’s letter appears below:

December 2, 2009

The Honorable Luke Ravenstahl
Mayor, City of Pittsburgh
Office of the Mayor
City-County Building, Room 512
414 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Dear Mayor Ravenstahl:

Let me begin by re-expressing my respect, both for you and for the position that you hold. I have taken special satisfaction from the past work we have done together and would welcome further opportunities to partner with you in helping to advance the City that is our home. In fact, this letter is prompted by my strong belief, which I know you share, that all of the forces within the City should be marshaled in a unified effort to meet one critical challenge.

From the very outset, it also is important for me to underscore something you already know—that Pittsburgh’s colleges and universities are important institutional citizens of this community, with a demonstrated commitment to both the City’s overall vibrancy and its financial strength. That latter commitment has been demonstrated in many ways, including support for the City, during a period of financial crisis, through the Public Service Fund.

To a person, the leaders of our institutions of higher education also are dedicated to the City. My own involvement in civic activities, particularly my extended service as Chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of City-County Government, which you helped create and charge, has provided me with a range of reasonably well informed perspectives on the management of the City and its finances. Among other things, I am aware of the determined efforts that have been made in recent years to cut and contain operating costs. I also know that the City of Pittsburgh, like many other municipalities, faces enormous challenges tied directly to the long-term legacy obligations associated with its badly underfunded pension plans. Those obligations, of course, were incurred in the past and are obligations over which the current leadership of the City has very limited control.

It is widely recognized that dealing with those underfunded pension obligations almost certainly will require new revenues streams, not only in Pittsburgh but in other municipalities. However, as has been made clear in a broad range of ways, including the moving presentations of our students, the higher education community remains strongly united in its belief that the proposed “tuition tax” is an inappropriate vehicle for attempting to address that need. It would impose an undue burden on a single, particularly vulnerable group whose presence within the City has helped to energize and positively shape 21st century Pittsburgh.

Because they have the clear potential to impede further progress and undermine the financial health of the City, dealing with our inherited, but unavoidable, pension obligations ought to be a collective responsibility. To be clear, I am writing this letter without the formal authority to speak for any group—including the higher education, broader non-profit, or business communities. From many discussions, though, it is my sense that leaders from all three groups would welcome the opportunity to become actively engaged in a unified approach to secure the revenues essential to meet these long-standing obligations, whether through an increase to the local services tax or in some other way.

However, as those who do have the authority to speak for the higher education community have consistently made clear, it is impossible for us to become involved in the joint pursuit of such alternatives as long as the “tuition tax” is being advanced through the legislative processes of the City. Instead, as long as that proposal is being pursued, all of our energies necessarily will be directed toward defeating it and protecting our students.

For that reason, I respectfully request that you work with the members of City Council to remove the “tuition tax” from Council’s agenda. In taking that action, you would be clearing the way for all segments of the community to move forward together in constructively pursuing an appropriate, long-term solution to a unique and daunting challenge that looms as a major obstacle to our shared progress. I am confident that many others would join with you in working to meet this challenge and can assure you that I would be one of them.

You have consistently stated that you would prefer to pursue alternatives to the “tuition tax” if they were available. My request, then, is a rather straightforward one. Please remove that proposal from the Council’s agenda so that others can join forces with you in finding, shaping, and securing a better way to deal with these potentially devastating legacy costs. As always, I am grateful for your consideration.

Mark A. Nordenberg