Taxing Education

photo courtesy of Orange Coast CollegeSitting outside the Gypsy Den Cafe & Reading Room, sipping a chai latte and wearing a baggy sweat shirt, Orange Coast College film major Ryan Simpkins doesn't seem any different from any other college student. But if you read the Daily Pilot on Nov. 6, you'd have the idea that Simpkins is a part of Reagan Youth—or, as the Times-owned community paper put it—"building conservative credentials to make Congressman Chris Cox proud."

The truth is less dramatic. Simpkins is a smart, charismatic guy who had a really good idea that's quickly being embraced by students, teachers and parents statewide: he wants to repeal the sales tax on college textbooks.

Simpkins' plan is simple. First, build a broad base of support for repealing state and county textbook taxes at college campuses statewide. Leverage that support to petition members of the Assembly to write the enabling bill. Simpkins also wants the state to "back fill" the revenue counties would lose with cash somewhere else in the budget —a plan that's worked in other states, notably New York and Texas.

Several members of the Assembly have expressed interest, and the tax cut is becoming a bipartisan issue: Republicans embrace any tax cut, and Democrats are interested in cutting the cost of education.

According to Simpkins, repealing the sales tax on college textbooks would reduce the average college student's expenses by $400 over the four years it typically takes to get a bachelor's degree. That estimate is based on the $50 per semester he realized he was paying in taxes at OCC. In courses that demand more exacting (and expensive) textbooks—such as in the hard sciences—the amount would be even higher. Whatever the savings, it could represent the difference between going to school and remaining in the work force for students such as Simpkins, who supports himself with money he saved while working the year between high school and college.

Simpkins is enrolled in OCC's honors program and is active in student government and the theater department. He denies any passion for full-time politics (which he describes as "interesting"), and says this crusade "is just something I believe in, and it'll help a lot of people. . . . I'm in a leadership position on student government, so I said, 'Let's see what we can do.'" He laments that his "crusade" has cut into the amount of time he can spend acting. He has a 3.91 GPA and hopes to attend USC. Aside from being a devoted Counting Crows fan—he's seen them 24 times—he says he doesn't have much time for anything else.

But a Cox-in-training? "I don't even remember what political party I'm registered as," he says dismissively. "I vote—and think voting's important—but I'd rather vote for the issues than a straight party line."

While students elsewhere have also taken on the textbook tax, OCC's student government has assumed the leading role, partly because of Simpkins' organizational skills and partly because of its large student government. The body's 70 members and $3 million budget "give us resources that other student governments don't have," Simpkins said. OCC's student government has contributed money to researching the results of similar cuts in other states and taking student, parent and faculty opinion polls statewide.

Simpkins is modest about his role and definitely aware that his only major opponent is the government itself. A bill to repeal the textbook tax was defeated last year when the state Board of Equalization found that the resulting revenue loss would be $34.5 million.

The student government tried Irvine Republican Marilyn Brewer, Simpkins says, but couldn't get past her aide, who "wasn't very receptive. I doubt she ever even heard about it." Earlier this year, Attorney General Bill Lockyer told student activists at a town-hall meeting, "It'll never fly. The governor will veto it."

Simpkins and his colleagues are learning. This year, they've garnered endorsements from the Senate of Community Colleges, the student lobbying organization, and other statewide student and faculty organizations, as well as student leaders at UCLA, USC and Cal State Long Beach. With better organization and greater popular support, Simpkins bets they'll find an author for their bill within the month and hopes they'll gain the two-thirds majority necessary to overturn a potential gubernatorial veto.

He acknowledges that politicians don't usually take students seriously; as a group, students don't have much money and often don't vote in numbers as large as, say, senior citizens. But he's confident they can overcome the stereotype. Says Simpkins, "We're only beginning to realize our power now."


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