Senate nixes provision boosting conservative college after uproar

Senate nixes provision boosting conservative college after uproar


By:  JORDAIN CARNEY

Senators agreed to nix a provision in the Senate tax bill early Saturday morning that would exempt Hillsdale College, a leading conservative college in Michigan, from an excise tax on schools with more than 500 students or large endowments.

Senators voted 52-48 to strike the provision with GOP Sens. Susan Collins(Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Deb Fischer (Neb.) and John Kennedy(La.) siding with Democrats to pass the amendment from Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.).

The surprise move came amid an uproar over the inclusion of the exemption from excise taxes for any university that does not accept federal financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.

Though several colleges do not accept federal funding, Democrats quickly seized on the section of the tax bill, arguing that Hillsdale College would be the only school that would qualify according to the guidelines set out under the legislation.

"Hillsdale College has powerful friends, including our secretary of education, but isn't that the type of insider deal we should oppose? A vote against this amendment is a vote for an earmark, for a school for powerful friends and subsidizing education," Merkley said ahead of the vote. 

The tax earmark was expected to be a big win for a school with several connections to the Trump administration.

For example, Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, graduated from Hillsdale in 1992.

Hillsdale graduates who joined the Trump administration include Josh Venable, chief of staff at the Department of Education; David Morrell, associate counsel to the president; Trump speechwriter Brittany Baldwin, and Stephen Ford, a speechwriter for Vice President Pence.

The language in the bill was sponsored by GOP Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Ted Cruz (Texas). 

Toomey unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to keep the measure in the tax bill.

He argued that its inclusion in the tax plan was "not about Hillsdale College exclusively. This is a broader idea." 

"I think it's a perfectly reasonable proposition that if a college chooses to forgo the very substantial funds available to it from federal taxpayers, it's okay to say you'll be exempt from this endowment so I would urge my colleagues to vote 'no' on this amendment," he said.