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California and the West

Even Teachers Skeptical Over Income Tax Exemption

May 16, 2000|MARTHA GROVES and JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After taking a beating from Republicans and Democrats over his proposal to exempt public school teachers from paying California income taxes, Gov. Gray Davis might have expected a little support from the intended beneficiaries.

But no.

Even many teachers, who Davis said practice society's most important profession, dismiss the notion as a misguided political gambit with little hope of passage.

"I thought it was a gimmick to avoid giving a decent raise to teachers," said Carol Perry, a veteran teacher of Advanced Placement government and economics at Huntington Park High School in southeast Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, state employees in other lines of work--from firefighters to prison guards to those who care for the mentally ill--quickly adopted a "me too" attitude.

"The concept is a good one," said Cliff Ruff, a director with the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "We'd like to be included."

Teachers weren't so sure. Union leader Day Higuchi called the idea "cockamamie." "Just pay teachers what they're worth," said Higuchi, president of the 43,000-member United Teachers-Los Angeles.

The novel proposal, floated by Davis over the weekend, was viewed by politicians of both parties as part of an attempt by Davis to regain the support of the California Teachers Assn. The powerful lobbying group pumped $1.2 million into getting Davis elected in 1998 but quickly soured on him because of his perceived unwillingness to seriously boost education funding.

Davis further frayed relations when he suggested that one way to fill the vast teacher void was to recruit individuals who would view teaching as a short-term launching pad for other careers.

After Davis revealed the no-tax proposal, CTA President Wayne Johnson immediately threw strong support behind it, saying teachers would take it "as a sign of respect" that could help attract newcomers.

Johnson reiterated that stance Monday, saying that young teachers in particular would relish having an extra $500 to $1,000 annually in their pockets to pay a month's rent or make a couple of car payments. Overall, the plan would save teachers about $500 million a year.

Some of the $1.84 billion that Davis recently added to the education budget undoubtedly will be used to raise teacher salaries in local districts, Johnson said. But Davis, who as governor has no authority to mandate across-the-board raises, also is "looking for other ways to make [the profession] economically feasible," Johnson said. "I applaud him for that."

But many Southland teachers cited a variety of problems with the plan. Some said the proposal has no real hope of passage given the vocal opposition emanating from both sides of the political fence. Others feared that it could be too easily taken away in hard economic times.

Other teachers were merely ambivalent, noting that the cash would be nice but suspecting that it would come with a hitch.

"It makes no sense to me why teachers should be a special class of people," said Michael Poff, a longtime Fountain Valley High School English teacher. "I'd like to have the extra money, but it seems such an odd way to do it."

The better way to reward teachers and entice recruits, Poff and others suggested, would be to raise salaries, give teachers enough supplies for the school year and let them play a bigger role in determining education policy.

"Right now, most major decisions about education are made by politicians," said Martha Correll, president of the 2,700-member Santa Ana Educators Assn. "Nobody ever says, 'We have a problem with education, I wonder what the teachers have to say.' "

Although a little extra cash is appealing, Correll said, it would not offset the $1,000 to $2,000 that many teachers spend to outfit their classrooms each year. And she doubted that it would lure new people to the profession.

Still, she said she planned to write supportive letters to legislators and would urge other teachers to do the same. She doesn't expect the efforts to come to much.

"I don't think it's going to happen," Correll said. "I don't think the Legislature will get on board."

Many teachers noted that a sizable chunk--probably 15% or more--of the savings in state taxes would go immediately to pay a bigger tax chunk to Uncle Sam. That is because teachers would no longer be able to write off the state taxes on their federal returns.

Some teachers found elements of the proposal appealing but viewed it overall as bad policy.

"I believe he definitely wants the support of the teachers union," said Kristi Colell, who teaches art at Newbury Park High School. "Giving teachers a tax break is a wonderful way to do that."

But Colell said the initiative is like opening a Pandora's box. If one government employee receives a tax break, every employee will ask for one, she said.

Steve Blum, president of the Ventura Unified Education Assn., said he liked the idea that Davis wants to elevate the teaching profession. But he said he feels that it is his duty to pay taxes.

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