CARBONDALE — Graduate students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale joined a nationwide walkout Wednesday to protest the House Republican tax reform bill, which includes a measure that would classify their tuition waivers as taxable income.
“We all know graduate students who are selling blood at the blood bank, selling their plasma,” said Sam Smucker, a teaching assistant in mass communications who helped organize the event. “That’s where we’re at. We don’t need more taxes. We are the poor of the poor.”
At a rally in front of Morris Library Wednesday afternoon, students said the tax hike would make graduate school unaffordable for most people. Graduate students at SIU make a modest stipend for their work as teaching and research assistants — typically about $14,000 per year.
The bill, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month and is currently under consideration by the U.S. Senate, would tax in-state students as if they made $25,000 a year, the organizers said. International and out-of-state students would be taxed as if they made about $40,000.
“This destroys the idea of a graduate employee income that could potentially support graduate students through their education, and it destroys the idea that working people can go and get a graduate-level education and can participate in innovative and scientific communities,” Smucker said.
The House bill also imposes new burdens on students by eliminating deductions for federal and private student loan interest.
“If you have $80,000 in (student loan) debt, and you’re paying $1,000 to $2,000 a year in your interest on the student loan, you’re going to lose that tax deduction,” Smucker said.
“I came to SIU because it is a wonderful school,” said Alex Lockwood, an out-of-state student obtaining his Ph.D. in communication studies. “It has one of the most thriving, involved communities of students that I’ve encountered at a university. And this is just one more instance of trying to make school inaccessible for poor people,” Lockwood said.
Anna Wilcoxen, a Ph.D. student in communication studies, said graduate students are already struggling.
“It’s really hard for us to pay our bills, to put food on the table, to keep roofs over our heads, already as it is. Make no mistake: this is an attack on education. This is an attack on free speech, and this is an attack on working-class and poor people who want to get an education,” Wilcoxen said.
“The quality of our research will suffer for this,” said Ryan Crawford, a Ph.D. student in the rhetoric and composition program. “But also, I teach English 102. These beginning English classes cannot be taught by anyone else but graduate students. The quality of those programs will also decrease, and that is a huge problem.”
Jyotsna Kapur, a professor of cinema and media studies, said graduate student stipends haven’t increased since she herself was a graduate student in the late '90s.
“The tuition waiver is what you’re paid — and not all that well, either — for the work that you do. So when we’re talking about this war and the working class and the middle class … now it is that we actually have to pay them to work,” Kapur said.
Andy Harper, a Ph.D. candidate in English, said that after taxes and $3,000 in student fees, he takes home just $10,000 each year. He said that his income barely provides enough his basic needs and doesn’t cover expenses like academic conference travel, or clothes for teaching. The tuition waiver tax would reduce his pay to $5,000 a year.
“Frankly, I want to say the graduate tuition waiver is not income. This is not a salary. I don’t see that money. … Nobody else, anywhere, pays $25,000 just to park at their job,” Harper said.
He said the tax could drive away the 65 graduate assistants who cover the English department’s core composition classes.
“If we’re not offering those classes, then we are not offering degrees as a university; we cannot function. And guess what? Our prolific, highly published, kickass, academically influential faculty are not going to hang around to teach 101 or 102, nor should they, because the world progresses and our nation progresses when they are doing the work in their fields, not covering basic composition,” Harper said.
Lauran Schaefer, a Ph.D. student in communication studies, said the tuition waiver is not income, but “more comparable to a coupon.”
“Every single university relies on the free labor of their graduate students to get things done. For myself, I’m working on a Title IX committee to make sure that you all get better training in terms of sexual assault. If you’re not paying us, we have to take other jobs, like waiting tables and things like that, which means that the university ceases to function and also becomes a significantly less ethical place,” Schaefer said.
Sana Haque, an international student from Pakistan who helped organize the event, started her Ph.D. in 2014. She works with SIU’s off-campus degree program in workforce education.
“I’m troubled by a lot of the implications of the tax bill in general, like a lot of us who care about lower-income people (being able) to survive,” Haque said after the rally. “But this is where it sort of hits you on the personal front. … I’m barely able to make it on the income that I have.”
The bill would increase her taxable income by $26,000.
“It’s going to push me and other international students to the point where we’ll evaluate and say, ‘It’s not worth it anymore.’ The U.S. is an expensive place to live in and study for a lot of people. If your stipend you receive to come here and be a scholar here doesn’t cover the cost of living here — we’re not allowed to work off campus. There’s no other way, unless you’re independently really wealthy, to do it,” she said.
INA — Gov. Bruce Rauner joined a discussion at Rend Lake College on Wednesday morning, trying to pitch Southern Illinois as an investment interest to Japan.
The governor was there with Japan's Consul-General Naoki Ito at the workforce and education roundtable, attended by the chancellor of Southern Illinois University and president of Rend Lake College. They all addressed the gathering during the luncheon at the school's student center.
Ito said he was looking for “a good investment climate” to help him decide to encourage more Japanese-owned business to build in Southern Illinois.
“So I really wanted to look at what’s taking place in Southern Illinois with my own eyes,” he said. “.I’m really impressed with the way the companies, the existing companies here, [are] enjoying very, very good working environment. … I see a very high potential here.…"
Of Midwestern states, Illinois has the highest percentage of Japanese businesses — 45 percent, or 630 companies, according to a news release from Japan's Chicago Consul General website.
In 2016, Japan had 1,389 businesses that provided 139,310 jobs in the Midwest.
"From a long-term perspective, the Midwest remains particularly attractive to Japanese direct investment due to its central location, top quality workforce, strong transportation network, and favorable business environment," according to the report on the Consul General website. "In return, Japanese business facilities provide jobs in both urban and rural areas, source components from U.S. companies, and are full members of their communities."
Gov. Rauner said he traveled to Japan and China and the U.S. East and West coasts and has a trip planned to Europe, all with the intent of trying to entice businesses to move into Illinois.
He said East and West coast businesses had already moved into Southern Illinois, which he said had less business regulations than does Illinois.
“They have higher tax burden,” Rauner said of those states. “We’ve got a huge opportunity for more growth. . . . If we could get the regulatory burden off of our businesses, so our regulations are very competitive, and if we can bring our tax burden down, especially our property taxes, we will boom.”
After the luncheon, the governor and Ito spoke briefly with the media, addressing questions about possible future business investments to concern about North Korea's missile tests — with the governor calling the country and its dictator "a threat to the world" — to sexual harassment to the status of a prisoner re-entry program announced in October 2016.
"I'm personally committed to making sure that gets open," the governor said about the Re-Entry Life Skills Facility in Murphysboro. "The bureaucracy is moving too slow. …. It's a very important economic engine to this part of the state. It's also essential to keep our communities safer."
After the brief question-and-answer session, the governor traveled on to Marion, where he visited the AISIN Group, an automobile parts supplier. There, he thanked company representatives for hosting him in a visit to its Aichi, Japan, headquarters during his Asia jobs visit there in September.
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration says a $60 billion package to provide health care to millions of low-income Illinois residents will save $1 billion over current expenses, while critics deride it as a "stealth deal" that they say is costing more than they expected.
The administration agreed to a four-year, roughly $15 billion annual contract with seven managed care organizations that will handle Medicaid coverage for 2.7 million Illinois residents beginning Jan. 1.
Rauner's administration predicts savings of up to $300 million a year, largely because insurers have agreed to accept lower payments from the state. But lawmakers of both parties have complained about the procurement process that led to the deal.
Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, the House Democrats' budget expert, will conduct a hearing Thursday in Chicago to get answers about the deal and a side contract that the Department of Healthcare and Family Services signed with a consultant to shepherd the pact.
The annual contract with the managed care organizations will cost the state 43 percent more than the $10.5 billion Illinois currently pays for Medicaid. But John Hoffman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, points out that the program will cover 800,000 more people.
"This transformation will offer quality care to vulnerable residents while ensuring sustainable costs for taxpayers," Hoffman said.
The plan will shift administration of health care from the state to private insurers. The administration contends that will lower medical costs because private insurers focus more on prevention. The state's program, called HealthChoice Illinois , will cover nearly 90 percent of the state's 3.1 million residents eligible for Medicaid.
Putting more Medicaid clients in managed-care coverage was the aim of a 2011 state law.
While lawmakers have complained that the contract wasn't done through the standard bidding process, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services insists the process was "competitive and transparent" and that the agency utilized the "purchase of care" procedure that's been used for decades for such contracts. Although bids were not required, the agency solicited them from contractors seeking the work, Hoffman said.
Critics, including Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza, say they hadn't expected the contract to cost as much as it did. She said in a statement that Rauner should have followed "an open and transparent review. He refused and we are now saddled with a massive stealth deal with an outrageous price tag."
Hoffman said Healthcare and Family Services Director Felicia Norwood had never provided a cost estimate.
Last spring, House Democrats used the impending deal as leverage in their budget negotiations with Rauner. In exchange for business-practice changes the GOP governor had long demanded, Democrats insisted on a traditional procurement process for the managed-care agreement. Negotiations went by the wayside, however, when Democrats who control the General Assembly adopted an income-tax increase and an annual budget over Rauner's vetoes.
Conservative Rep. David McSweeney is interested in the answers too.
"I want a full explanation of why the MCO (managed care organization) contracts were not competitively bid using the procurement code," the Barrington Hills Republican said. "I also want a detailed explanation of why the administration recently creased the MCO cost estimate."