Graduate students arrested outside Speaker Ryan's office for protesting tax increases

A dozen graduate students were arrested outside of House Speaker Paul Ryan's office on Dec. 5. The students came from Illinois, North Carolina, New York, Missouri, California and Washington, D.C., to voice their concern with the GOP-authored tax p
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A dozen graduate students were arrested outside of House Speaker Paul Ryan's office on Dec. 5. The students came from Illinois, North Carolina, New York, Missouri, California and Washington, D.C., to voice their concern with the GOP-authored tax p

Durham County

A tax bill worth getting arrested over? One Duke grad student seems to think so

By Ray Gronberg

December 05, 2017 04:15 PM


A Duke University Ph.D. student was among nine people arrested Tuesday outside U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Capitol Hill office suite in Washington, D.C., as they protested a tax-rewrite that could hit graduate students in the pocketbook.

Laura Jaramillo was detained by police after she and other protesters organized by the Service Employees International Union unsuccessfully demanded to meet with the Wisconsin Republican to discuss a bill that could, if the House gets its way, sharply raise the tax liability of many master’s- and Ph.D.-level students.

“They shut us down pretty quickly,” said Jess Issacharoff, who like Jaramillo is a Ph.D. student in Duke’s literature program. “It does seem Paul Ryan was not interested in hearing from the people this bill would affect.”

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Duke Ph.D. student Laura Jaramillo (center, green jacket) prepares to be arrested by U.S. Capitol Police along with eight other people protesting a proposed tax-law rewrite outside U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office on Tuesday.
Duke Grad Union

Jaramillo and Issacharoff made up the Duke contingent in a protest that also included students and supporters from universities in Missouri, Illinois, New York, Georgia, California and the District of Columbia.

It targeted a provision in the House bill that would repeal the present deductability of the tuition remissions that have long figured in the financial aid Duke and other universities offer graduate students who take on teaching or research duties.

A slot in a graduate program in such schools typically comes with a cost-of-living stipend, which is taxable income, and a tuition remission or waiver, which isn’t. At private universities like Duke the tuition waiver can approach $60,000 in value.

If both are taxable, a student’s annual liability to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service would jump sharply.

But as UNC system President Margaret Spellings pointed out in last week in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “you can’t pay taxes with a waiver.” That takes cash, and the stipend could well be a student’s only source of it.

A tuition remission is “certainly not income because we never see it,” Issacharoff said.

Opponents of the House tax-bill provision fear that many graduate students could be forced to abandon their studies if it becomes law. That has implications not just for the accessibility of an advanced education, but for “the kind of people who are going to be teaching future generations,” she said, adding that graduate school could become a province “restricted to people who are already wealthy.”

The U.S. Senate’s competing tax rewrite would preserve the tax-exempt status of tuition remissions, but it’s not clear the Senate will prevail in negotiations with the House on a compromise bill. Republicans in both chambers and President Donald Trump all see a tax rewrite as a key legislative priority.

Tuesday’s protest in a hallway of the Longworth House Office Building in Washington resembled the “Moral Monday” civil disobedience sit-ins that have been a regular feature of N.C. General Assembly sessions this decade.

But it appears from media reports that Ryan’s Congressional office has become a frequent protest target in its own right, with encounters occurring the last few months over causes ranging from immigration to healthcare.

Duke’s chief spokesman, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld, said university leaders had no comment on Jaramillo’s arrest.

The university is approaching the end of the fall semester. Graduate students wrapped up their semester’s classes on Friday and are now in a “reading period” that will last until exams start on Dec. 13.

As of 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday Jaramillo and her fellow arrestees had been released, officials said. The Duke Grad Union’s Twitter feed said both Jaramillo and Issacharoff were “safe and sound” and “happy to have been part of the fight.

The SEIU has been trying to convince Duke’s graduate students to join the union, though an organizing vote in the spring didn’t go its way. The union’s Duke members generally oppose the bill’s higher-education-related provisions and in that are joined by the university administration.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg