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California and the West

Teachers Reject Idea of Tax Break

Unions: California Federation opposes Davis' exemption plan. 'Just pay us a professional salary,' president says.

May 18, 2000|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a significant blow to Gov. Gray Davis' proposal to end state income taxes for teachers, a major union representing public educators announced Wednesday that it is opposing the tax elimination plan.

The California Federation of Teachers, representing 50,000 public school teachers and 50,000 other public school workers, said the money would be better spent on pay raises.

"We are willing to pay taxes," Mary Bergan, the federation's president, said in a statement. "Just pay us a professional salary and we'll pay taxes on it."

The group is the first education union to oppose the governor's proposal. The larger and more powerful California Teachers Assn. has not taken a stand on Davis' idea.

While the federation of teachers is not as influential, the group's announcement will give ammunition to the growing number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers who oppose the idea.

"It is significant," said Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. "Here, the very people who are the beneficiaries don't think it's a good idea. That solidifies the opposition to the measure."

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael) also praised the union's stand. Mazzoni suggested other alternatives to the tax exemption, including making teaching a 12-month profession and paying teachers more, or giving them a tax credit for money they spend on school supplies.

"Though CFT doesn't have the clout of the CTA, it has often been viewed as progressive in its positions," Mazzoni said.

In a move that attracted national attention, Davis on Saturday proposed eliminating state income taxes for teachers. He said the plan is part of an effort to attract more qualified people to teaching, and underscores his view that it is society's most important profession.

Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante said the federation's opposition will not dissuade the governor from pursuing the idea.

"It is not going to be off the table," Bustamante said. ". . . The governor is intent on fighting for its passage."

The legislative analyst's office, meanwhile, criticized the proposal, saying such an exemption "does not appear cost-efficient."

Questioning whether the exclusion would be "effective, efficient and equitable," Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill noted that "the dollar benefits to teachers with identical training, competency and salary could differ markedly, due simply to their personal tax situations."

"Also," Hill's report said, "is it advisable to begin making occupation a basis for tax treatment?"

Hill criticized another major component of Davis' education package--a proposal to send school districts $1.8 billion to use as they see fit. The additional money could end up costing some districts money.

Several large school districts, including Sacramento and San Diego, have contracts with their teachers that would force them to spend the entire sum on across-the-board pay hikes for teachers. But the state money would pay primarily for teachers in regular classrooms. Given California's complex education funding system, such districts might end up having to cut programs to pay for the salary increases for teachers who work in some special programs.

Hill also renewed her general criticism of Davis' budgeting methods.

"Many proposals lack data and specificity, making it impossible to effectively evaluate them," she said in her analysis of Davis' overall $98-billion spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.

The governor's proposed income tax exemption for teachers would not extend to many California Federation of Teacher members, including teachers' aides, community college lecturers and teachers, and school secretaries and janitors.

"Even though we appreciate the governor's assertion that teaching is the most important job now, there are a lot of other jobs that are also important, and to single teachers out causes division and dissension within schools," Bergan said.

The federation suggested that if Davis wants to put more money into teachers' pockets, he should consider pushing to have the state pick up a larger share of teachers' contributions to their pension fund.

"The CFT has never regarded special exemptions and tax cuts as a good idea, and has always opposed them" Bergan's statement said. "We try to be consistent as an organization and [have] always opposed special exemptions and tax cuts. That includes tax cuts for ourselves as well."

Tommye Hutto, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Assn., stopped short of embracing the governor's plan, though she called it "innovative."

"Nobody wants to let $500 million go away," Hutto said. "Teachers deserve this money. We need to get it to them some way."

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