Legislative Attacks on Historic Preservation and Archaeological Research

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

About a year ago, in the wake of the election, I wrote a piece for the MAPA Blog evaluating the ways in which the new administration would be able to roll back protections for historic and cultural resources.  I warned then that these efforts would not necessarily be titled “repeal of the law,” so we would have to be watchful for sneak attacks on our profession in the form of riders, hidden provisions, amendments and bills defunding the protections that currently exist.

This month, in a whirlwind of activity carried out largely behind closed doors, Congress has launched a number of such attacks. While I’m no expert on tax law or legislative process, in the interest of keeping archaeologists updated on these developments, I’ve summarized some of the current legislative threats to historic preservation and archaeological research.  The two most pressing attacks are attempts to rewrite the Antiquities Act and the proposed tax reform bill currently on the Senate floor.

Attacks on the Antiquities Act

Many of us have closely watched Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments and are waiting in dread to see exactly how the President will shrink Bears Ears National Monument and how many tribal leaders he will insult and disregard in the process. The MAPA blog has previously covered the Bears Ears debate. Perhaps less widely discussed, however, has been a bill introduced by Utah representative Rob Bishop and passed by the House Natural Resources Committee last month, which would rewrite the Antiquities Act of 1906. It would explicitly grant the President power to reduce the size of National Monuments. It would also require the approval of state and local authorities before the President could declare new monument status for large tracts of land.

The Antiquities Act has been the bedrock law for protection of archaeological resources for over a century, and the power of the President to provide additional protection to certain federal lands with unique cultural resources has been an important buffer against the destruction of sites due to development, resource extraction and looting.  Many of our most precious archaeological sites would never have gotten monument status if local authorities had to sign off on them, and this “reform” simply guts the Antiquities Act. While its retroactive effect on currently existing monuments is unclear, the bill would certainly make the future declaration of new National Monuments next to impossible in many places.

The House on Fire site, part of the Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by the author.

Tax Reform

On November 16, after just two weeks of debate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to reform the federal tax code.  The Senate is debating its own bill and will likely vote on it in the coming days. As of this writing, the House bill and the Senate’s proposed language have many important differences, and those differences will have to be resolved in committee (again, largely behind closed doors) once the Senate votes on its bill.  As such, it is unclear what exactly will emerge out of Congress, but based on the House bill, it is clear that not only is archaeology under threat, but so is our entire system of higher education.

Historic Tax Credit

The House bill eliminates the historic tax credit, a fixture of our tax system since the 1970s which is intended to provide incentives for historic preservation. The owner of a property on the National Register of Historic Places who complies with historic preservation guidelines can receive a tax credit of 20% of eligible rehabilitation expenses. Without this law, property owners have little incentive to rehabilitate historic buildings and are likely to instead bulldoze them and start over. This is not just about saving old houses; the tax credit has been an important tool for cities in pursuing urban renewal and low-income housing.

Graduate Student Tax

Several provisions of the House tax bill are likely to significantly increase the costs of higher education. Perhaps the most egregious of these is the effort to tax graduate student tuition waivers.  Graduate students who are teaching assistants or research assistants receive two things in exchange for their work: a stipend and a tuition waiver. So, for the hours I work as a part-time graduate student instructor or teaching assistant at Binghamton University, I am paid a stipend of about $7,900 per semester, and my tuition is also waived. That $7,900 is my only income; my contract says I cannot moonlight in another part-time job. And that is because the university’s intent is to fund my studies–  the work I do is intended to be a part-time commitment while I also take classes or write my dissertation. I am supposed to be focused on my studies, not on earning a living.

Graduate students pay taxes on their stipends, of course. But the tuition waiver has traditionally not been treated as income. The House bill would change that. In-state graduate tuition for a year at Binghamton is nearly $5,400. So now, instead of paying income tax on just my $7,900 of salary, I would be paying taxes on $13,300 (even though I still only ever see the $7,900 as actual paychecks). And this is at a public university with relatively low tuition; at an expensive private university, graduate students could be paying taxes on $50,000 of tuition.  According to a CNBC report, this could increase the tax burden of some graduate students by 300 to 400 percent, a breathtaking change that will make graduate school entirely unaffordable for many young anthropologists. Excellent students might have to drop out, American universities will have even more trouble recruiting the best graduate students from abroad, and as always the hardest-hit students would be those from communities that are already underrepresented in academia.

The effect on graduate student taxable income. Photo used by permission of @legogradstudent

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that some 145,000 graduate students currently receive tuition waivers. Moreover, the Chronicle noted that “nearly 55 percent of all graduate students had adjusted annual gross incomes of $20,000 or less, and 87 percent had incomes of $50,000 or less.” We are not major wage earners trying to scam the system. Yet the House tax bill treats our tuition benefit as if it were some kind of tax shelter that needs to be eliminated to set the system straight.

Universities have been speaking out, and the American Anthropological Association has joined a group of other societies in objecting to the taxation of graduate student tuition waivers. With the Senate vote coming any day now, graduate students across the country are mobilizing to protest the House’s tax changes. But on the whole, graduate students are a small constituency and one that has little support among many Republicans; as a member of the American Enterprise Institute recently told Politico, “’very few Americans care’ about the plight of colleges and especially about the problems of graduate students.”

Other Higher Education Tax Issues

The House tax plan has a number of other provisions intended to attack higher education in this country. For example, the House plan would tax large college endowments – further draining the funds available to our universities. It also eliminates the deductions associated with student loan interest as taxpayers with student loans can currently deduct up to $2,500 of the interest they pay. Current deductions for tuition and fees associated with higher education, as well as the Lifetime Learning Credit, will also be reduced or eliminated under the House plan.

What Can We Do?

The Senate version of the tax bill currently lacks many of the scorched-earth provisions in the House bill. But somehow the House and Senate versions are going to have to be reconciled. We must therefore contact our senators and our representatives to argue against the changes we oppose. This is especially important for people who have Republican representatives; chances are they are hearing very little in support of graduate students and academia.

The Society for American Archaeology provides talking points on the Antiquities act here. The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students has talking points and information on the tuition waiver provision here.  While phone calls are much harder to ignore than emails and petitions, the National Trust for Historic Preservation does have online petitions you can sign on the Historic Tax Credit and the Antiquities Act.

There have been few times in modern history when historic preservation and archaeological research have been under such threat.  Thankfully, current versions of the tax bill are remarkably unpopular; the latest polling data suggests that most voters oppose the plan.  As with the ACA repeal legislation, there is the possibility that a handful of Republican Senators could break ranks with their party and vote their conscience.  The window to make a difference is closing quickly, however, and if these bills are passed, we may find ourselves living in a country where historic resources are routinely plowed over to make way for development and our universities are emptied of students pursuing archaeology.

A stele in Metz, France showing a Roman tax collector with his abacus. (Photo credit: Wikimedia.)

About the Author: Michelle Turner is a PhD candidate at Binghamton University. She works on southwestern archaeology and is currently writing her dissertation about recent fieldwork at Aztec Ruins National Monument. She has a BA in International Studies from American University and a JD from the Vanderbilt University School of Law. Prior to starting her PhD, Michelle practiced law for about ten years, first at two large law firms and then as a clerk for a federal magistrate judge. In addition to her work in southwestern archaeology, Michelle also does research on cultural property law and repatriation efforts.  Please note that nothing in this post is intended as legal advice.


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