When Madeline Gangnes woke up to a push notification Saturday morning on her smartphone, her heart sank.
News that the Republican Party-led tax bill passed in the U.S. Senate 51-40 just before 2 a.m. Saturday left Gangnes, a 31-year-old UF English doctoral candidate, in a whirlwind of uncertainty, mulling over how she’d be able to make ends meet under the new tax policy.
“My stomach dropped, basically. I almost had a panic attack,” she said. “Pretty much all of us were freaking out today.”
Doctoral students like Gangnes take issue with the House’s version of the Senate bill from Nov. 16, which would have their tuition waivers be considered taxable income. Graduate students who teach or perform research for their university often have their tuition waived by the federal government, a tax break about 145,000 students across the U.S. rely on, according to NPR.
For Gangnes, the new policy would mean instead of being taxed on her $20,000 annual stipend — equivalent to $9.62 an hour — she would instead be taxed as if she makes $30,700.
The House and Senate now have to reconcile their two separate bills before submitting a final version to President Donald Trump’s desk, although only the House bill calls for taxing tuition waivers, according to The New York Times.
If the House bill provision passes, Gangnes said students from low- and middle-income families would have to reconsider graduate school altogether, tanking higher education participation nationwide. She said she fears senators won’t fight against the House bill if push comes to shove.
“It’s definitely this feeling like we’ve been sold a bill of goods, we were told we’d have this system in place for us to pursue this career that we love,” she said. “Now someone’s pulling out the rug from underneath.”
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said the bill would be an affront to local communities, given its proposed corporate tax rate cuts and the $1.4 trillion deficit the Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would add over the next 10 years.
Poe said he thinks it’s unprofessional how senators pushed for a vote in the middle of the night.
“I probably know as much about that bill as the senators who voted for it, which isn’t a good thing,” he said. “It’s definitely not good for our community.”
Amid student fears, the UF Graduate Assistants United union, which represents about 4,000 teaching and research assistants, is considering how to move forward. GAU spokesperson Josh Papacek said he feels UF should speak out against the bill.
“I think it would have been reassuring to the graduate students that the university is behind them on this issue,” Papacek said. “Should it pass, (GAU) should be working with the university to come up with solutions to this.”
UF has been working with nonprofits like the Association of American Universities to lobby on Capitol Hill with its concerns of taxing tuition waivers, UF spokesperson Janine Sikes said.
UF President Kent Fuchs also wrote to Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson ahead of the Senate’s vote, speaking out against the bill’s effect on students, and thereby universities, Sikes said.
“We still have to wait on the reconciliation between the House and the Senate bills,” Sikes said. “We’re doing what we can behind the scenes to get some changes.”
In the meantime, Papacek said many graduate students will have to grapple with whether they can continue in their programs.
“It’s going to be difficult for a lot of people, there’s already a lot of grad students that are living paycheck to paycheck,” Papacek said. “Even $1,000 more in their tax budget is going to cause grad students to make some difficult decisions as to whether they can still even be in school.”