Opinion and Forefront

BONIFIELD: An easy way to help college students

December 24, 2011

Jake BonifieldAnother month, another potential government shutdown. The most recent controversy to bring our federal government to the verge of stalemate had to do with the controversial payroll tax cut and a deal to approve the Keystone XL project. The specifics though, seem less important with each new crisis.

Partisan gridlock, the oft-lamented but rarely defeated enemy of progress, seems to have spread from Washington to our own Statehouse and even, in many cases, to city halls across Indiana. The list of benign subjects unlikely to let loose the dogs of political war is shrinking.

For their part, many members of Congress took part in a bipartisan gift exchange with seemingly no disastrous consequences. Many members of Congress are even willing to sit next to a member of the opposite party during nationally televised speeches, as well, perhaps chalking the monumental sacrifice up to love of country.

Back in Indiana, the chasm seems narrower, if less perilously deep. With the controversial “right-to-work” bill set to again divide members of the House, Gov. Daniels’ final session promises to be a dramatic re-enactment of last year’s saga.

Amid all the partisan agenda items, however, there will be some legislation that is both worthy and capable of engendering bipartisan support.

One example is a bill being pushed by college students and student governments across Indiana that would help reduce, if only for a few days, the cost of higher education for college-age Hoosiers. The initiative, known colloquially as “Tax-Free Textbooks,” would enact a tax holiday—likely two weekends a year—during which students would be able to purchase their textbooks free of state sales tax.

The idea is not new, with a similar bill having been introduced 10 of the past 12 sessions. Authors have included both Republicans and Democrats, and although the measure has never made it out of committee, this year represents the best chance that it will, and the current economic climate remains the best argument that it should.

In 2005, a Government Accounting Office inquiry found that textbook prices had nearly tripled from December 1986 to December 2004, outpacing the inflation rate with an average increase of roughly 6 percent per year. Recent increases in tuition at Indiana University and other state universities have again called the public’s attention to the high cost of higher education.

Though textbook costs, when compared with the average tuition at public and private institutions, may seem insignificant, these costs are most often borne by students themselves, without help from scholarships or financial aid. Taking steps to address the problem—at a minimal cost to the state—may not make headlines, prompt a walkout, or appear all that exciting, but for the thousands of college students who are forced to grapple with prohibitively expensive textbooks and course materials twice a year, this simple bill could make all the difference.

Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-North Manchester, plans to author the bill in the House and supporters are hopeful their initiative will benefit from the recent efforts of Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and others to level the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses that compete against giant online retailers but, unlike the Amazons of the world, are forced to charge customers state sales tax.

A sales tax holiday for textbooks would certainly benefit in-state retailers that sell books and course materials, but it would also be a relatively inexpensive first step to leveling the larger playing field. Other tax-holiday bills come with big price tags and have wider-reaching impacts, but a tax-free textbook bill would be the sort of thing Republicans and Democrats, mothers and fathers of college students and grads, could and should embrace.

So instead of a Washington, D.C.-style holiday gesture, let’s hope members of the General Assembly will all chip in to buy the college students of Indiana the best gift they could hope for—a more affordable education.•

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Bonifield is a political science major at DePauw University and president of Hoosier Youth Advocacy, an organization focused on increasing youth participation in the Indiana General Assembly. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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