By Ülvi Gitaliyev
When one thinks of Berea College, one of the last things that come to mind is Senate Majority Leader Mitch “Tortoise” McConnell. Yet, what some students, more recent students, might not know is that the Kentucky senator has been one of the staunchest supporters of Berea College for years. Let us take a trip down memory lane to see why.
Our story begins in December 2017, when President Donald Trump and the Republican Party were trying to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which, as the name implies, attempted to cut taxes for individuals (temporarily) and corporations (permanently). Interestingly, this Act to cut taxes also raised some taxes, specifically on colleges and universities endowments, by 1.4 percent. An exception to this rule was made to colleges with more than 500 “tuition-paying” students. It did not take long to realize that such a specific exception was meant for a handful of colleges across the country, including Berea.
In typical partisan fashion, Berea quickly turned into a battleground between the two major parties. With the support of the Senate parliamentarian, Bernie Sanders argued that such a specific exemption fell under “extraneous matters,” which is prohibited from bills. As a result, the exemption was dropped from the bill. The senator wrote not one but two pieces in Kentucky’s two most prominent newspapers, justifying his actions and shifting blame to the Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders specifically for not getting Berea a tax exemption.
By February 2018, the exemption was put back in and passed under a new budget deal, and the matter went to rest, or so we all thought. In July 2019, the tax exemption was challenged again, but not by the Democrats. Instead, The Trump administration’s own Treasury Department argued that their definition of the word “tuition-paying” meant that Berea would be subject to the endowment tax. McConnell protested once again, but there was not much he could do to protect his beloved Berea this time.
One interesting actor throughout this tug of war was Berea College President Lyle Roelofs. In his statements to the New York Times, Washington Post and other newspapers, the president had difficulty hiding his frustration with Democratic senators and then the Treasury Administration. In the Lexington Herald-Leader (the full article was paywalled), he explicitly stated that he was working with Andy Barr, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul (all Republican politicians) to exclude Berea from the endowment tax.
The question that I was pondering while reading all these articles was why? Why would Mitch McConnell go out of his way to try and exempt Berea College from his own tax bill? If we ask him, he will say it is because he supports Berea and its tuition-free promise, but politics are never that straightforward. Kentucky journalist Jim Brutsman argues in an opinion piece that Senator McConnell thought that other, more partisan parts of his tax bill were more important and let Berea be a casualty of politics. Bernie Sanders claimed that the exemption was meant to shore up support for senator McConnell in his home state for future elections. Personally, I believe that Berea College was simply an afterthought in McConnell’s mind while he was writing the bill. Once he realized that protecting it would take actual effort, he dropped us like a choo-choo train that was left out in the rain the day after Santa came.