About a hundred and fifty students bearing petitions signed by ten thousand more confronted the Pittsburgh city council yesterday. They were to make their views heard at a public hearing on a tuition tax the council is considering imposing.

If passed, the tuition tax would be the first in the nation — a one percent tax on higher education bills intended to help close the city’s budget gap while doing an end-run around its universities’ tax exempt status.

The bill has been dubbed the “Fair Share Tax,” and its supporters argue that students currently get a free ride, receiving city services without contributing to city revenue. But opponents of the tax note that nearly three quarters of students at city universities already pay real estate taxes (either directly or, as renters, indirectly). They also pay a variety of other taxes and fees — notably, as one student speaker at the hearing pointed out, the seven percent tax on alcohol served in bars and restaurants. “Let’s face it,” grad student Mackenzie Farone told the council, “we are the ones that pay the drink tax.”

Students also point out that the tax would not be covered by financial aid — a poor undergraduate on a full scholarship at Carnegie Mellon would be hit with the same $400 tax as her wealthiest fellow student.

The council is currently split 5-4 on the tax, with five members supporting it. Students are hoping to change one member’s mind before a vote later this month.

If the tax does pass, it is expected to face court challenges, and there is a move underway in the Pennsylvania state legislature to prevent its adoption. Students are also promising to remember councilmembers’ votes when the next city council election rolls around in 2011.

Opponents of the tax have a website here.